Tower, RAPCON work together to keep planes moving

A radar and approach control center air traffic controller watchs the radar during his shift. RAPCON members take the hand-off from tower members to help an aircraft continue to its destination.  (Photo by Senior Airman Dallas Edwards)

A radar and approach control center air traffic controller watchs the radar during his shift. RAPCON members take the hand-off from tower members to help an aircraft continue to its destination. (Photo by Senior Airman Dallas Edwards)

Staff Sgt Jeremiah Moore, 39th Operations Squadron air traffic controller, goes to answer the primary crash alaem system phone in the tower. Air traffic controllers have to be able to respond to any situation while in the tower. (Photo by Senior Airman Dallas Edwards)

Staff Sgt Jeremiah Moore, 39th Operations Squadron air traffic controller, goes to answer the primary crash alaem system phone in the tower. Air traffic controllers have to be able to respond to any situation while in the tower. (Photo by Senior Airman Dallas Edwards)

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey -- Aircraft are always coming and going at Incirlik. From fighters to tankers, military aircraft to commercial carriers, there is never a dull moment for our joint U.S. Air Force and Turkish Air Force team in the tower and radar approach control center.

Together they control all the air traffic around the base. The two entities, of tower and RAPCON need each other to efficiently do their job.

"The most visual of the two is the tower," said Staff Sgt. Zachary McFall, an air traffic controller working in the RAPCON. "When most people think of air traffic controllers, they immediately think of the tower, but the RAPCON is also essential."

At more than seven stories high the controllers in the tower control the runway, taxiways and parking spaces on the flightline. They also control five miles from the center of the runway and from the ground up to 3,000 feet.

"We talk to the pilots who come into our area no matter if they are landing, taking off or just passing through," said Tech. Sgt. William Ijames, control tower watch supervisor. "We are responsible for getting the jets off the runway and up in the air."

Getting the jets off the runway requires a lot of coordination said Sergeant Ijames.

"Before any jet can depart, it has to be cleared through the Turkish Air Force who actually owns the runway," he said.

It is different, he said, but that makes for a unique assignment.

The variety of the air traffic, the frequency of the ground traffic and the difference in the aircraft makes this assignment different than the rest.

"Every base is different," said Sergeant Ijames. "Controllers just have to adapt."

All controllers who come here are able to control traffic on their own or are rated. Many of them come from bases where the air traffic is a lot heavier than here.

"When they first arrive they don't automatically get to control traffic," said Sergeant Ijames. Many new controllers must get adapted to the area, the tower and even the type of jets this tower controls. They have to go through special training that is base specific.
"A controller who was working with KC-135s at their last base has a lot to learn about controlling traffic at a fighter base," he said.

To the controllers in the tower, it's really just a day-to-day job said Sergeant Ijames.
"In our job there is always something different going on. Every day is different than the next," he said. "You have to be able to think on your feet no matter what. If there are two jets coming at each other, a controller needs to know what to do and do it without hesitation."

"When it comes to air traffic, the amount of ground traffic and construction going on makes it a bit of a challenge," said Master Sgt. Adrian Bland, chief tower controller. "But we relish the challenge."

Like a relay race, once a jet takes off the tower hands off the controls to the RAPCON.

"Our main job is to take the hand off from the tower and help the jets get to their destination. The scenario starts with a pilot about to take off talking to the tower. Once the jet has left the ground the RAPCON takes over from there. When the jet is coming back to land the pilot speaks to RAPCON who hands it back to the tower," said Sergeant McFall.

Though many issues that exist for the tower also exist for the RAPCON, it has its own set of challenges.

"The base here has a very unique type of working situation," said Senior Master Sgt. Steven Lantz, chief RAPCON controller. "Here we work side by side with our Turkish counterparts. The challenge is in coordination and communication across language barriers.

Controllers who work in the RAPCON are also five-levels like their tower counterparts and they too still learn local issues and other things before being allowed to control traffic on their own.

"We had our radar system go down," said Sergeant McFall. "We had to control the skies in the dark using navigational aides, charts, and mathematical means. It was like controlling the freeway in a small dark closet," he said, "but we did it and will do it every time."

The tower would be incomplete without the RAPCON and vice versa. When it comes to getting the jets on and off the runway the RAPCON and tower compliment each other.