Hill Air Force Base's eyes in the sky never rest

  • Published
  • By Lee Anne Hensley
  • Standard-Examiner writer
The 75th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controllers train nonstop with the best equipment to ensure safe and friendly skies over Hill Air Force Base and surrounding communities.

Air traffic control trainees learn the fundamentals of controlling air traffic at a four month technical training school at Keesler AFB, Miss., and when they are assigned to Hill AFB, they undergo an additional year of simulated and live training. But one year of static training, studying and testing, along with simulated and live air and ground traffic controlling, does not ensure that trainees will become a rated air traffic controller.

"It is a big deal when you finally get your rating," says John Jobst, 75th OSS Tower Simulation System administrator and watch supervisor. "It is a stepping stone in your career because you have invested so much time and effort."

Even after completing that milestone, the controller does not stop training and learning. Using the same simulator they used in tech school and initial upgrade training, the Tower Simulation System, Hill tower controllers can continue to fine-tune their skills.

"Our (air traffic controllers) are getting 'sim' time three to four times per week in addition to their time up in the tower," says Training Standardization and Watch Supervisor Bob Cox. "If they are having a particular problem in the tower, we can recreate any situation from the tower in the sim to help the controllers work on certain issues."

The "sim," or TSS, is a 225-degree, three-dimensional wrap-around screen that mimics the windows of the control tower and is connected to a computer that replicates the Hill AFB airfield to every minute detail. The trainee can get a 360-degree view of the airfield with the scroll of a desktop mouse. Approximately 75 different scenarios are programmed into the TSS with many different options to vary each scenario. The computer has a voice-activated system in which the digital aircraft and pilots respond to the trainee's commands. The TSS can place any aircraft from any country in the flight pattern and it also can be configured to represent the environment at deployment locations so the controllers can train before deploying to war zones.

"We can throw all variables at them in the sim and we train them to work any given scenario," Jobst says. "We can never replicate anything 100 percent but at least we can let them know what they can expect to happen in real life."

"This is also a great tool to learn how to deal with emergencies," Cox adds. "The tower is not the place to handle your first emergency. In the sim, you can pause the scene and explain to the controller what will happen if he chooses to make a certain decision, and you can also show him what might happen if he makes the wrong decision."

However, where technology is limited, old-fashioned paper or model airplanes are still used to fill that void.

"The only drawback with the TSS is, if the sim administrator doesn't stop the scenario in time, you can't go back and rewind it, but you can with the (static board)," Jobst said. The (static board) is basically an aerial map of the airfield and folded paper or model airplanes are manually pushed around the map used to simulate air traffic scenarios.

"Some of the best training methods come with the static board," he said.

Other traditional training methods -- reading, studying and testing -- are routinely used as well.

"Air traffic control regulations are consistently changing and we are continually studying to maintain our proficiency," said 1st Lt. Nathan Coyle, the Airfield Operations Flight Commander.

"Each controller has to keep up with the standards to maintain their ratings," Jobst adds. "Each month, Bob distributes a test to ensure controllers remain proficient and to validate that the controllers understand any changes to the standards that may have occurred."

So even when there are no planes in the Hill AFB airspace, it doesn't mean the air traffic controllers are taking the day off.

"In this job, you never stop training," said Cox.