NEWS | Oct. 4, 2019

Air Traffic Controller Making the Pieces Fit Like Tetris

By Staff Sgt. Ramon A. Adelan 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- It’s like a game of Tetris, only instead of blocks, its aircraft and lives – the simplest mistake can prove fatal.

For air traffic controllers, the job is in a constant state of flux. One second they’re easily controlling the ground or air traffic, then in a split second chaos can ensue.

“It gets chaotic when you have so many pilots needing so many different things at once,” said Tech. Sgt. Alexandra Foley, 51st Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller. “There’s like 10 different voices in your ear and you have to take all those voices, consider their request and give them direction.”

Air traffic personnel controls and regulates en route and terminal air traffic. Initiates and issues ATC clearances, instructions, and advisories to ensure the safe, orderly and expeditious flow of air traffic operating under instrument and visual flight rules.

“You come in everyday and it’s different,” Foley said. “It’s not the same monotonous thing. I can tell I’ve never seen the same thing twice. It never works like that. Weather is different. Wind is in a different direction. It’s a different pilot flying that plane. You have to be able to think really fast.”

The controllers have to figure out how it all fits into play with a clear head and clear understanding of the airspace and ground control to safely launch and receive aircraft.

“It’s a matter of getting into a different headspace when you’re in the tower, which can be so exhausting,” Foley said. “You’re physically tired by the end of the day. Not because you’ve been running, because you went to a different space in your head and the adrenaline associated with it. You have to make decisions and they have to be legal by regulation and it has to be safe. And if it’s legal and safe, there’s a lot of creativity involved in that.”

There are times when plan B quickly becomes plan A.

“You can always have a plan but sometimes the plan doesn’t work, so you have to make up another one on the spot,” said Senior Airman Robert Tanimura, 51st OSS air traffic controller. “Everything is moving fast, so you have to think fast and on your toes to smoothly continue operations.”

There are multiple ways to sequence planes and each controller orchestrates the airfield in their own way. All the while, the watch supervisor is listening-in to every position in the tower ensuring nothing unsafe or illegal is happening.

“It’s tough some days,” Foley said. “You have a rough night for whatever reason or personal stuff going on at home, when you come in the morning you’re going to have a rough day. You’ll be focused on something else. You have to work with your team. Everyone up there is making sure that everyone has what they need, to do what they have to do.”

The stigma behind air traffic control is it is one of the most stressful jobs. They’re ultimately responsible for multimillion dollar assets and people’s lives with every decision they make.

“It’s like Tetris and different airframes are like different size pieces,” Foley said. “Sometimes it fits beautifully and sometimes it’s ugly.”

The controllers take into consideration different variables when directing traffic, such as who is inbound or departing, aircraft speed, aircraft type and weather.

“We get to see the mission from takeoff to landing,” Foley said. “We have to be resilient because things don’t always go perfectly, but we bounce back and make the mission happen.”