24 MEU (SOC) ATC Marines protect aircrews, produce precision patterns

22 Jan 2003 | Gunnery Sgt. Mike Dougherty

For Sgt. Brian Wakely, an air traffic controller and Carney, Okla. native, every day on the job is a high-stakes proposition.  "There's millions of dollars and a lot of lives on the line every day," he said. With so much riding on his performance, there's little room for complacency or boredom in this line of work. 

Wakely is one of four controllers assigned to the Aviation Combat Element of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable).    1stLt. David Pidgeon, Marine Air Traffic Control Mobile Team officer-in-charge leads the detachment, and spends a great deal of time "on the mike" himself.   "I've always been pretty 'hands on,' he said while standing watch with Wakely and another controller, Sgt. Chad Roach. 

Together, the team has established airspace and maintained aviation safety for the three major exercises conducted by the MEU this deployment.  On the last exercise, in the Central Command Area of Operations, the controllers worked out of a traditional-looking control tower, but they considered this a luxury, not a requirement.  "The tower is a bonus," said Wakely.  "In Djibouti, we were on the ground." 

One of the most challenging air traffic evolutions of the last field exercise came when an M198 Howitzer had to be flown in for maintenance. The artillery piece was picked up by a CH-53 Super Stallion from its location in the field, and dropped off at a designated location in the base camp of the MEU Service Support Group.  While preparing to set down the unbalanced load into a spot on the desert sand, the helicopter created a "brownout", said Pidgeon.  To the outside observer, it looked like an enormous dust storm, a rapidly expanding cloud of sand and debris.  The pilot could see clearly what was going on "inside the cone," said Pidgeon, but communication with the tower was critical to get the piece on the correct path and to the right spot.

When commencing operations in a new environment, a series of preparations must be made by the controllers.  First, a suitable runway must be established for fixed-wing aircraft.  A runway must be 3500 feet in length to accommodate KC-130's, according to Roach.  In addition to meeting the dimensional requirements, it must also meet standards for weight bearing.  This can be tested with the use of a device called a Drop Cone Pintrometer, or may also be gauged by the depth of treads left by a High Mobility Multi -Purpose Wheeled Vehicle after a "test drive".   Next, communications must be established for 40 miles in both directions .

Host nation support is another important consideration when getting established.  Fortunately, language barriers are never an issue. "International air traffic control is all done in English," said Roach.  In Djibouti, the controllers were brought well into the fold, to the point where they augmented the host nation's controllers at Djibouti International Airport.  Many Marine Corps Air Stations share their airspace with civilian aircraft, so they were well versed in coordinating military patterns while incorporating jumbo jets. MCAS Beaufort shares its airspace with four nearby airports, MCAS Yuma shares its runways with an adjacent civilian airport, and MCAS Cherry Point has frequent landings by civilian planes that come to pick up Marines.   On the MEU's most recent exercise, the host nation support was "outstanding," said Wakely.  In addition to providing a tower and taking care of the Marines' logistical requirements, the hosts refused to let them eat Meals Ready to Eat, instead bringing them hot food they had prepared for every meal. 

Becoming an air traffic controller is no easy task, said Roach.  In training, the academic load is tremendous, and students are required to memorize scores of rules and regulations as published by the Federal Aviation Administration.  New controllers can be nervous on the microphone while trying to keep up with the rapid pace.   They also need to learn to work outside the tower, as forward air controllers or establishing helicopter or tactical landing zones.   Once they're comfortable with it, the job is very rewarding, though. 

"The best part of the job is the Marines...they're extremely smart," said Pidgeon, a prior enlisted infantryman who has served on a Fleet Anti-Terrorism Strike Team and as a Close Quarters Battle Instructor.   For him, standing watch in the tower enables him to step out of his primarily administrative position and work alongside his Marines.   The working environment tops Roach's list of job highlights.   "It's like a (playing) a video game, except there's no reset button, and you've only got one life -that's it."