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Guiding the skies: Sheppard air traffic controllers use composure, expertise to ensure safe flight operations

  • Published
  • By Julie Svoboda
  • 82d Training Wing

Air traffic control is an in-demand career that requires training, skill, attention to detail, and the ability to remain calm under pressure. While all air traffic controllers share these characteristics, being an air traffic controller at Sheppard Air Force Base offers a unique environment that presents opportunities to sharpen these career skills.

Sheppard is home to the 80th Flying Training Wing, which hosts the Euro-Nato Joint Jet Pilot Training Program, the only multi-nationally manned pilot training program in the U.S. Air Force. The program trains both new and instructor pilots and is one of the Air Force’s busiest air fields, flying around 245 training missions per day.

Along with the Air Force sorties, Sheppard air traffic controllers cover the co-located Wichita Falls Regional Airport, requiring them to guide both military and commercial aircraft flown by pilots of all experience levels in a busy operational tempo.

For Senior Airman Darnell Robinson, the ENJJPT program is what drew him to Sheppard nearly four years ago.

“Not all air traffic controllers are usually talking to training pilots,” he said. “So we're talking to people during the first time they’ve ever been in this kind of environment. And then they're also speaking a secondary or tertiary language, so it increases the difficulty quite a lot. I'm definitely grateful that I got to be here and have these experiences. I know, no matter where I go, if it's civilian side, or continues to be in the military, that I'll be prepared, because I was trained here.”

According to Senior Airman Jacob Twele, the training mission also provides experience the air traffic controllers with experience handling emergency communications in a lower-threat environment.

“Because we’re a training base, every pilot that has a minor issue in a plane is treated like a major emergency, just to make sure everything is fine,” he said. “We see 10-15 a day sometimes. So we have a lot of experience dealing with pilots in stressful situations.”

Airman Aidan Lee agrees.

“We can’t be panicking in stressful situations,” he said. “Being at Sheppard, we take things that are considered minor in aviation seriously because it’s trainers and trainees. We’re better prepared than controllers who have never handled an emergency.”

The air traffic control trainers take measures to mitigate the stress of the job and ensure each person knows they are part of a team.

“One of the major themes throughout training is crew resource management,” Twele said. “You have to understand that everyone on the crew has each other’s back. There are a lot of checks and balances to make sure nothing goes unnoticed.”

The professionalism and camaraderie impressed Airman First Class Jeremiah Melendez when he arrived at Sheppard 11 months ago.

“When I first came here, I was up in the tower and it was overwhelming,” he said. “I would just watch how everyone’s working, meshed together. And I thought, ‘wow, this is really cool.’ But then I looked at the scope and see little dots and thought ‘huh, the sky is really busy.’ And then you just see that everyone’s calm, cool, and collected. That’s one thing I really admired.”

For Lee, air traffic control at Sheppard provides a rewarding combination of professional growth and personal accomplishment.

“The one thing I really enjoy about being a controller is the sense of achievement,” Lee said. “The thing that I didn't know yesterday, now I know today, and I see myself growing day by day, learning new stuff every day. Not everybody can do this job. And I'm privileged to have an opportunity to go to training and meet a lot of different people.  I'm really grateful for it.”