At the top of the air traffic controller tower Air Force Duke Field, F-35s zip by at eye level. Staff Sgt. Brian Morris keys up his headset to tell those fighters where to go, when to turn and who to talk to next. A few steps behind Morris is Steven Kates. He monitors the action throughout the tower and keeps a keen eye out across the 360-degree spectrum of the bright blue yonder.
Morris, who’s new to the Duke Field tower and its ATC flight, just completed his qualification in the three controller positions (flight data, ground and local) on October 4, 2017. This means he can control aircraft on his own, without being monitored by a trainer. Some of his training was conducted by Kates, the tower’s watch supervisor.
During Morris’s training, the trainee and his trainer discovered they shared a generational ATC bond dating back possibly before the new staff sergeant was born.
October 4, 2017 - Steven Kates (left) watches the Duke Field airspace as Staff Sgt. Brian Morris, 96th Operations Group, communicates with an aircraft at the air traffic control tower. Kates, a tower watch supervisor and controller for 37 years, trained Morris’s father in ATC in the early nineties. This year, he also helped train Morris and supervised his tower certification. (U.S. Air Force photo by Samuel King)
“We were basically getting to know the new guy on the crew,” said Kates, whose controlled aircraft at Eglin and Duke Field for 20 years. “We discovered his father and myself were at Davis Monthan (AFB) tower at the same time in the early nineties.”
Kates remembered training and supervising Morris’s father in the tower between 1990 and 1992. Kates was a technical sergeant and Brian Morris Sr., was an airman 1st class.
“It took a bit, but my dad did remember a Sergeant Kates,” said Morris, who followed in his father’s footsteps as an Air Force ATC.
Kates joked about possibly seeing Morris as an infant at unit events or family functions. Morris, who was born in 1991, went even further speculating that Kates may have signed his father’s leave paperwork so he could be at his son’s birth.
Presently however, Kates looked on as Morris issued a bird sighting to an incoming F-35 during his final tower evaluation. Kates helped both father and son become qualified air traffic controllers approximately 26 years apart.
Morris is one of a few new Airmen assigned to the 96th Operations Group flight to help with the increased traffic above the Duke Field runway.
The 14 Airmen and civilians of the day and night crews control aircraft from every base in the local area to include Tyndall AFB and Pensacola Air Station. This means a continuous rotation of all varieties of aircraft from helicopters to the F-22 Raptor. The bulk of their traffic is F-35s and Air Force Special Operations Command aircraft.
The demand for runway approaches at Duke Field challenges new controllers and keeps veteran controllers on their toes. Recently, Runway 18/36 has become the go-to path for unique training opportunities. The controllers work all requests for nonstandard approaches, atypical special operations landings, parachute drop training and night vision flights.
“It is something new every day we come to work,” said Kates, a retired master sergeant and Texas native. “The constant changes make it challenging and overall very satisfying work.”
He compared controlling aircraft to a 3d chess board with moving the pieces (planes) to the right places and ensuring they accomplish their goal.
Kates also said when training a new controller he always tries to impart some wisdom from his years of experience that could benefit the trainee in his current position and possibly throughout their career.
“He really helped me grasp how different Duke Field traffic is from Eglin,” said Morris, whose now qualified at both Eglin ATC towers. “He made me understand how the puzzle fits together.”
Kates estimates he’s trained more than 40 controllers over his 37-year career. He only has five more years before he can retire and he said he plans to keep sharing his knowledge and techniques until he finally hangs up his head set.
Morris has two more years in the Air Force and plans to again follow his father’s path and become an air traffic controller for the Federal Aviation Administration.
By U.S. Air Force Samuel King
Provided through DVIDS
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