Inside The Looming Tower
by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. BreeAnn Sachs
April 1, 2019
Air traffic controllers from the 54th Operations Support Squadron arrive for duty long before the sun begins to rise at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. The start of their morning shift, or as they reference it, “day shift,” marks the start of the flying mission.
The brisk winter air is stagnant, stinging their cheeks as they approach the impressive 12-story tower. The 49th Wing airfield is almost silent, soon to be disturbed by the rumbling of fighter jets.
“An average duty day starts with a pre-duty familiarization brief, we call it the big brief,” says Senior Airman Abel “OG” Gonzalez, 54th OSS air traffic controller. “You get familiar with what’s happening on the airfield. Then you get into position, and I’m a trainer so 90% of my time in position is spent training (my trainee).”
As the watch supervisor works down the list of briefing items, no ranks or last names are used when addressing the other Airmen. For air traffic controllers, operating initials are used when communicating with each other instead.
“They work like a nick-name, and some people do only refer to others by their initials,” said Airman 1st Class Antonio “TD” Saenz, 54th OSS air traffic controller.
The crew separates into their individual positions, and trainees pair with their trainer; one pair at the ground control station, one at flight data, one at local control and one at the watch supervisor desk. All that is seen through the 360 degree window pane is darkness, excluding a few lights marking runways and taxiways.
December 20, 2018 - 54th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controllers observe F-16 Fighting Falcons taking off on Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. The air traffic control tower is divided into five positions with unique responsibilities including ground transportation, flight data, local control, the watch supervisor desk and the supervisor of flight desk (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. BreeAnn Sachs)
The sun begins to peak over the mountains, and the smell of fresh coffee fills the tower cab. The hum of the coffee maker is overshadowed by the roar of F-16 Fighting Falcon engines warming up for a day of flying.
“It’s gonna be a good day,” said Staff Sgt. Trevor “SS” Sachs, 54th OSS watch supervisor trainee.
Rain drips down the glass window panes and a thick fog hangs in the air. The airfield glistens as water forms shallow pools, and the controllers are alerted to potential safety concerns.
As the day is just beginning, flying missions are already being adjusted.
“It feels like solving a puzzle at first but as you get more experience it becomes second nature,” said Gonzalez. “When things don’t work you have to adjust to it on the fly, and when your initial plan doesn’t work you go to the next plan. You have to have a back-up for the back-up.”
Holloman is home to one of the most notorious airfields in the Air Force’s arsenal. With three intersecting runways, controllers have a lot of options as well as unique challenges.
“(Holloman’s) three runways are in the shape of a number four, and we can have multiple runways in use at one time,” said Senior Master Sgt. Nicholas “ND” Day, 54th OSS chief controller. “It can create a very complex dynamic that is fairly unique to Holloman.”
On rainy days like on December 18, 2018 ... the complex pattern allows controllers to adjust to runway closures.
The cab soon transitions from light conversation and sips of coffee to an inaudible sea of traffic calls. Each Airmen is solely focused on their task at hand, and they swiftly guide each F-16 into the air.
December 18, 2018 - A 54th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller observes an F-16 Fighting Falcon taxi near Badger Road on Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. Badger Road is named after a badger found by airfield management. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. BreeAnn Sachs)
“When there’s flying going on it’s business – all business,” said Day. “(It is) very short, succinct coordination, very to the point and most controllers are very type-a and control oriented. When there’s traffic we are all hands on deck, all eyes out the window and everybody is paying attention and working.”
Once every F-16 wheel leaves the runway, and the airfield is cleared of traffic the atmosphere in the tower cab lightens.
“The atmosphere can be tense when there is traffic, when there is no traffic we try to loosen the collars just a little bit,” said Day. “It’s usually very joke-y and light and we try to keep it that way.”
It is easy to see that the 54th OSS controllers have formed a strong bond while controlling the chaos of Holloman’s airfield. In their down time, the controllers laugh and joke with one another -- a recent anecdote involves a vermin turned tower mascot.
“Recently, airfield operations found a badger on a road by the tower,” said Sachs. “One of the civilian controllers named the road where they found it Badger Road. A few fighter squadrons have started using Badger as a call sign as well.”
It is the small things that have a huge impact on the controller’s morale. Something as simple as a badger helps keep the tense situation of busy traffic at one of the Air Force’s most complex airfields at bay.
While the training is tough, and the job can be demanding, the 54th OSS controllers truly enjoy what they do.
“My favorite part is when you get a busy recovery and your plan works and you get all (the aircraft) down perfectly,” said Gonzalez. “It is the most rewarding feeling that any air traffic controller can have. I feel like it is hard to be stressed about doing something that you like doing so much.”
In addition to the reward of successfully piecing together the puzzle that is air traffic control, the simple fact that they get to view aircraft is reward enough for some controllers.
“I remember when I first got here I was so excited, and when (an F-16) would be taxiing by or taking off I would watch it all the way through,” said Saenz. “My trainer would always tell me I’m going to get tired of (seeing them every day). Even now, I think it’s such an amazing thing to see these jets take off. To this point it hasn’t gotten old.”
In the distance a UH-60 Blackhawk begins to lift off the ground. The local controller clears it for departure, and as it is leaving Holloman’s airfield it makes a sharp turn around the tower cab.
December 18, 2018 - An Army Air UH-60 Blackhawk flies around the air traffic control tower on Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. Holloman is home to many airframes including F-16 Fighting Falcons, MQ-9 Reapers, T-38 Talons and QF-16 Drones. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. BreeAnn Sachs)
The eyes of the controllers light up, and a few let out soft cheers.
“I told you it was going to be a good day,” said Sachs.
Around mid-day the next crew of controllers report for duty. Due to duty restrictions, the tower is split between three shifts.
“Their duty days are scheduled for eight hours, but may be longer,” said Day. “Their day cannot exceed 10 hours, we have similar crew rest standards to pilots.”
The afternoon, or “swing shift,” is given the “big brief” and begins to take position.
The atmosphere is unchanged, as traffic begins to return from their missions the controllers zero in on their task at hand and ensure the pilots’ safe return. In the slow times, they talk about life and their common interests.
“We are very tight knit, we look out for our own and take care of our own,” said Day. “I do not know if we are any more so than anyone else, but because we do work in such close quarters with one another for so many hours out of the day we like to think of ourselves as a family.”
Hours go by, and the afternoon sun begins to set. The Sacramento Mountains light up with a pink and purple glow in the evening light. The controllers begin to pack up and close the airfield for the evening, only to be opened for another day of flying missions.