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'Ravens' keep air traffic flowing in northern Afghanistan

March 19, 2012

By Staff Sgt. Joe Armas

CAMP MARMAL, Afghanistan - As aircraft navigate the airspace of northern Afghanistan, it is the task of air traffic controllers to provide pilots with accurate information to ensure safe flight.

The 1st Air Cavalry Brigade's air traffic control team arrived in theater last June and since then has coordinated more than 100,000 air movements.

Sgt. Adam Tate, from Harrisburg, Ill., has been an air traffic controller in the Army for five years now.

Tate said one of the challenges of being an air traffic controller is that there is no room for error when it comes to guiding aircraft through the battle space.

"You often have to make split-second decisions and failure on our part can result in a disastrous scenario," said Tate, assigned to Company F, "Ravens," Task Force Lobos, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division.

"You might get one aircraft that wants to do one thing that conflicts with three or four other aircraft that are pursuing the same airspace," added Tate.

These air traffic controllers oversee the numerous air routes that encompass Afghanistan's northern sector.

"We're an extra and important set of eyes for the pilots," said Sgt. Christopher James, from West Point, Ga., also assigned to Company F, TF Lobos, 1st ACB.

"It's our job to ensure that aircraft maintain their separation from each other and arrive to their destination in a safe and timely manner," added James.

With a routinely high volume of traffic, the controllers use various factors to determine the order in which aircraft get priority to land or maneuver throughout the airspace.

James said the sequencing procedure is based on the type of aircraft, airspeed, altitude and level of communication with the pilots.

"Here in Afghanistan, as part of ISAF, we have aircraft that come in from all different parts of the world, so language barriers also provide a challenge for us," said James.

Air traffic control is currently a joint effort in northern Afghanistan, as representatives from four countries within the coalition work alongside the soldiers from the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade.

As coalition forces begin drawing down around the country, the Afghans will eventually take the lead in many areas- air traffic control most likely being one of them.

During his deployment, Tate was tasked to teach a course that taught prospective Afghan air traffic controllers the basic principles of the job.

As his time in Afghanistan is dwindling down, the course is now being taught by fellow coalition members from Hungary.

Tate said taking part in the training was a satisfying experience and one that bears an important responsibility.

"It's important because we need to set some groundwork for them to allow an easy transition for when they take over the air traffic control mission," said Tate.

According to numerous sources, the job of an air traffic controller ranks highly as one of the more stressful jobs in both the public and private sectors.

James said air traffic controllers should bear a calm and cool personality if they want to be successful.

"If you're the type of person that is hardly ever in a good mood or has a negative outlook on things, maybe you shouldn't be in this field," said James.

"Every day is different and presents new challenges," said Tate.

James said he takes his job seriously, and he has a good reason to do so.

"People's lives depend on us," he said. "When you're up in the tower, you have to constantly be focused on the task at hand."

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