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Airmen advise Djiboutian air traffic controllers

by Staff Sgt. Francesca Popp
U.S. Central Command Air Forces News Team

1/18/2007 - CAMP LEMONIER, Djibouti (AFNEWS) -- As the air traffic controller approaches his perch, he enters through the smoke-filled lobby of an old, white tower. He must hike up 96 stairs through a narrow, two-foot-wide passageway to the top. Just as he sits down, a call from a C-130 Hercules comes in on the radio:

Aircraft pilot: Tower Liaison, Weasel 51 is 60 miles to the west inbound to Djibouti looking to pass download information.
Air traffic controller liaison: Weasel 51, Djibouti Tower Liaison, ready to copy.
Aircraft pilot: Yessir, have four pallets for download, six (passengers) with loose cargo, also requesting two-four thousand pounds of fuel and a power cart.
Air traffic controller liaison: Weasel 51, tower copies all, expect parking location will be on Whiskey -- the commercial side.
Aircraft pilot: Weasel 51 copy, thanks for your help.

Tucked into a corner of the Djibouti Ambouli International Airport tower, Tech. Sgt. Jeff Sloan transmits instructions to pilots and advises his counterparts -- the Djiboutian and the French air force controllers -- as well as U.S. aircraft. He will stay in the tower until one of three other U.S. Air Force controllers relieves him of his duties.

Sergeant Sloan and the others are air traffic controller liaisons for Navy Operations overseeing the military-civil joint-use airfield. They have a 360-degree view of the airfield and surrounding area -- with the Gulf of Aden to the east and a mountain range to the southeast. This enables them to observe all U.S. military inbound and outbound aircraft.

"As ATC liaisons, we work on the civilian side of the airport -- the military side is Camp Lemonier," said Sergeant Sloan, deployed from the 42nd Operations Support Flight at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. He is serving a four-month tour in the region.

"We sit back and observe the French military and Djiboutian civilians control aircraft. Our overall job is for the safety, security and efficient flow of coalition forces in and out of the Horn of Africa," he said.

As the eyes and ears of the camp, they ensure all assigned aircraft are not excessively delayed for landing or take off. The controllers in the tower are not doing what they would do at home station. They don't have the control they would normally have. Here, they look out the windows, listen to what's going on and advise the Djiboutian or French controller of what they observe.

"As a controller, you normally dictate what, how and when something happens," said Sergeant Sloan. "As a liaison, we have to sit back and allow others to use their methods and procedures, which may not be what I would like to do. But, it's a matter of patience and having an understanding that things are done differently. It's not always a bad thing."

Sergeant Sloan said he would like to be able to give instructions to the military aircraft landing and taking off, but knows that's not his main responsibility. Due to the agreement between the U.S. military and the host nation, servicemembers serve in the capacity of a liaison to ensure language barriers can be overcome. However, he's learning international procedures.

While the Djiboutians and French have the main authority in the tower, the military controllers can suggest different ways of doing things to their civilian counterparts.

"They understand the more eyes you have on the aircraft and on the airfield, the safer you are," Sergeant Sloan said. "If need be, we can broadcast emergency information (to the pilots) in the event that two aircraft are too close or there's a potential for an unsafe situation."

The Airmen send information via a multi-channel radio to talk directly with U.S. aircraft. They can advise the pilots of airfield conditions, parking locations and the cargo and passengers to be downloaded. The Djiboutian controller actually guides the aircraft's pilots to land.

"It makes everything run better for our pilots and the controllers. Having the (liaison) in the tower helps, just in case the Djiboutian doesn't understand (what the pilot is requesting)," said Navy Lt. j.g. Arthur Stewart, the Navy Operations officer in charge of air traffic and early warning control. He's deployed from Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego.

A safe airfield helps guarantee U.S. aircraft can continue flying missions, keeping supplies and people moving through the Horn of Africa.

"We do have a good working relationship with the Djiboutians. We want to ensure the airfield is safe and I know the Djiboutians want the same thing," said Tech. Sgt. Brian Lyles, Navy Operations noncommissioned officer in charge of ATC/EWC. Sergeant Lyles is deployed from the 100th Operations Support Squadron at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England.

A C-130 makes its final approach. The Air Force hands the aircraft back to the Djiboutian controller for landing and Weasel 51 is cleared to land.

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