Training to control the skies

  • Published
  • By SSgt Dan Heaton and SrA Rachel Barton
  • 127th Public Affairs
From a darkened room, at the base of the tower, Nicoli Ogilvie issued her commands: Today, a half-dozen aircraft, ranging from military F-16s to tiny single-engine Cessnas, are responding to her directions. 

A New Yorker, Staff Sgt. Ogilvie is a member of a Pennsylvania Air National Guard unit who has been training in Michigan for the past year. Just another day in the Guard's Air Traffic Controller training program. 

"It takes about a full year of training, on average, before a new controller is fully qualified," said David Holmberg, a civilian controller who works in the tower at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan. Holmberg retired from the Air Force and is one of a number of retired active duty military controllers who now work in the Selfridge tower and serve as training advisors to visiting Guardsmen. 

Selfridge, a joint-use base located about 25 miles from Detroit, is one of several locations where apprentice Air National Guard air traffic controllers (ATC) go to receive their upgrade training. New ATC trainees are able to be trained in tower operations, where controllers direct aircraft operate within an approximately 5-mile radius of the base using a combination of visual, radio and radar systems, at most places were the Air Guard operates. Only a handful of U.S. Air Guard facilities, such as Selfridge, also offer the radar control training, where ATC operators control aircraft operating as far as 50 miles away. The ATC operators need both certifications to be fully qualified to serve the world-wide needs of the Air Force. 

Ogilivie, who served for nine years as an information management specialist in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, transferred to the Pennsylvania Air National Guard with the specific goal of moving into the ATC field. 

The first stop for ATC trainees is Keesler AFB for an intensive 14-week introductory training program where students learn the basic skills needed to be an air traffic controller. For Guard members, this program is followed by the upgrade training at one of the regional centers, such as Selfridge. 

There are typically about four or five trainees that enter the Selfridge program at one time, according to Holmberg. The students begin their training on a simulator system in the base control tower and it can be up to 5 months before a student controller begins working with real radar and live aircraft. 

Holmberg said he and the other controllers at Selfridge enjoy the opportunity to work with the students. 

"It forces us to stay fresh, to keep current with any changes," he said. 

The extensive training that Ogilivie received at Selfridge prepared her to become a deployable and mission ready Air Traffic Controller. In addition, Ogilivie said in the future, she hopes to use her experience and training as a controller in the Guard to gain a job as a DOD or civilian air traffic controller in the future. 

"It's a challenging job," she said, "but I love a good challenge."