ALTUS AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --
When thinking of airspace, one might assume that the chances of two aircraft colliding while in the air is pretty low. In reality, there are tens of thousands of planes in the air at any given point. Additionally, variables such as bad weather and low visibility make flying a feat that can’t be accomplished with aircrew alone. This is where the 97th Operational Support Squadron Radar Approach Control Flight comes in.
From providing adequate separation between aircraft to issuing safety alerts and traffic advisories, RAPCON ensures the training of exceptional mobility Airmen is accomplished year round.
“Imagine flying an airplane that’s super high in the air and stuck in a cloud,” said Airman 1st Class Linsey Beebe, 97th OSS RAPCON air traffic control apprentice. “You can't see a thing, and there would probably be a lot of anxiety. [Our job is to make that pilot] feel better by letting them know RAPCON is watching and making sure the aircraft is safe from any hazards since they are flying blind.”
RAPCON’s area of responsibility stretches approximately 40 miles in each direction of the base and ranges from the ground to 9,000 feet in the air, meaning they deal with the aircraft at larger distances when they can’t be visually seen.
“It's like we're in control of managing a big, 3D parking lot, so not only is it horizontal, it’s also vertical,” said Airman 1st Class Ashtan Howell, 97th OSS RAPCON air traffic controller. “Imagine all the cars trying to get into the same parking spot at the same time; that's where our job comes into play.”
While managing the airspace, Beebe said controllers have to make quick and accurate decisions based on various factors. Some factors the team considers are the types of aircraft that are flying, what their capabilities are, the number of aircraft currently flying and weather conditions. In order to make those decisions, air traffic controllers have to undergo a large amount of training.
“The training takes a long time because there are five different positions we have to learn,” she said. “We have to learn all the rules of air traffic, plus the Air Force's version of it, plus the base's specific version of it. There are a lot of layers to learn.”
After completing the four-month technical training, which has a 50 percent washout rate, RAPCON Airmen arrive at their new bases as 3-levels, or apprentices. They are paired up with trainers, who are 5-level air traffic controllers, who guide them toward earning their career badge, a process which can, on average, take a year to complete.
One of the base’s newest certified air traffic controllers is Airman 1st Class Carson Poppenga, who spent nearly the first two years of his contract in training. He earned his career badge in October of 2020.
“It felt really great [to complete my training],” he said. “I felt like everything I've done so far has been validated. After you get done with training, you can safely and legally work by yourself.”
However, just because they’ve earned the trust to work alone, Poppenga said a job as complex as air traffic control requires teamwork.
“Everybody in there is working together, even if you’re not the one who’s directly communicating with the pilots,” he added. “There’s never just one set of eyes watching.”
Additionally, Beebe said training never stops for air traffic controllers. With each new assignment they receive, they have to learn the bases airspace, what kind of aircraft they have, the aircraft’s capabilities, and remain proficient in all of the positions.
“You're in training again every time you PCS,” she said. “And on top of that, with air traffic control, it doesn’t matter how long you've been in. If you're not showing that you can still do it, you can get washed out at any time. So it's important, no matter what position you're on, you remain proficient in all of them.”