24/7 Behind The Radar Scope
by U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Tiffany Price
February 27, 2022
Tucked away in the darkest room of the 337th Air Control Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, there are a minimum of 13 air traffic controllers conducting radar and approach control (RAPCON) 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Alexander Jones, 325th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, utilizes radar and approach control (RAPCON) to guide aircraft at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, Feb. 9, 2022. RAPCON and the ATC tower work in conjunction to control the local airspace. The tower has a five-mile radius of visibility, while RAPCON monitors flights all across the airspace. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Air Force photos by Airman 1st Class Tiffany Price.)
The tower is usually what comes to mind when air traffic controllers are brought up in conversation. While the tower has a direct relationship with what’s happening on the flight line, they can only visualize a five mile radius within the local airspace. The RAPCON team, however, can visualize and control approximately 4,000 square miles of airspace by utilizing a radar scope. Together, the tower and RAPCON air traffic controllers provide a safe and efficient airspace for all present aircraft.
“The interaction [between RAPCON and fighter pilots] is essential to safely accomplish our mission,” stated Lt. Col. Jeffrey Peterson, 325th Operations Group deputy commander. “RAPCON ensures the pilots are able to fly in and out of the airspace by keeping pilots safe during bad weather and monitoring the airspace to ensure there are no safety conflicts with other aircraft during our training.”
The 325th Fighter Wing is home to the 43rd Fighter Squadron, where fighter pilots are trained to fly the F-22 Raptor. Tyndall also hosts multiple large-force exercises to include Checkered Flag, Agile Flag and Combat Archer.
While operating at Tyndall, the RAPCON team is also responsible for assisting the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport with their incoming and outgoing air traffic. This extra duty puts the lives of approximately 1.5 million civilians in the hands of Tyndall’s controllers each year.
Staff Sgt. Alexander Jones, 325th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, explained with commercial traffic and large-force exercises, the airspace can become very crowded with each controller possibly monitoring up to 30 aircraft at a time.
“It’s during those busy moments that your heart is pumping and your adrenaline starts to flow,” expressed Jones. “When you’re in that moment, you’re not focused on the number of aircraft on your scope, but rather making sure all of them are going to pass through the airspace without colliding with each other.”
In order to maintain a safe passing distance, aircraft need to be separated by 1,000 feet in altitude to pass over each other and three miles if they are to pass alongside each other.
Supporting Tyndall’s mission and ensuring the safety of thousands of civilians can be a daunting task, but Jones explained the challenges are what gives an air traffic controller a true purpose.
The 325th OSS RAPCON team provides a good example in that whether they are supporting a civilian aircraft or an air-to-air combat training exercise, their participation is vital to Tyndall’s mission.
“Our RAPCON team is the best in the business, not only do they provide expert control but they are able to do so despite changes in operations tempo,” said Peterson. “We could not execute these high level training events without them. They directly contribute to the 325th FW mission of training and projecting unrivaled combat airpower.”
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