In an air traffic control room at Fort Bragg, two clocks hang on the wall — one for local time and the other for Zulu (expressed in 24-hour format).
Samantha Hernan, a six-year Maryland Army National Guard veteran, is working as the controller on duty. She is familiar with military operations and maintaining situational awareness, both key to becoming an air traffic controller.
“It’s a different challenge because you have a lot of moving parts because you have artillery, the range is open, you have people training in certain areas, a lot different types of operations,” Hernan said. “We have UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), drop operations, helicopter operations, so it’s a challenge being exposed to all these different things and then figuring out how to de-conflict with the aircraft, and I enjoy it. I like it a lot,” she said.
The job is so complex that to become a shift supervisor, a trainee must undergo three months of industry and range control operations training, as well as have a year’s experience, said John Botello, ATC and live-fire control room chief and a Navy veteran.
Job responsibilities fall under two jurisdictions; Air Traffic Control and Range Control.
“It’s a combined facility,” Botello said. “I don’t separate one from the other. We have an agreement between the two divisions that says the ATC is under the operational control of the range officer.”
It must be done that way because some of the tasks include tracking and reporting environmental incidents, range accidents and fire and gun reports.
For instance, an injury on a drop zone has to be communicated to the range control fire desk so that a medical evacuation and a nine-line can be initiated, explained Botello. Nine-line refers to specifics such as the location and security of the medevac pick-up site and any requirement for special equipment.
Additionally, ATC operators must maintain communication with other military and civilian professionals, including the 911 call center, Fayetteville Approach Control, Simmons Army Airfield and Camp Mackall.
They help man Fort Bragg’s restricted air space, R5311, which accommodates authorized military aircraft or aircraft used in support of training.
The airspace rises to 24,000 feet and covers any area west of Lamont and MacRidge roads, south of Little River, east of King Road and north of Plank and Chicken roads, Botello said.
“We have a lot of volume vertically, but for a post, we’re very small which means we’re claiming a lot of training in a little space. It calls for increased situational awareness,” he said.
Yet, the responsibility does not end there.
Fort Bragg’s ATC also helps to train military controllers, the Airfield Operations Battalion, the Army National Guard and others to keep current, all to maximize efficiency in support of Army aviation.
Such efficiency has seemingly not gone unnoticed.
According to Botello, the U.S. Army Installation Command has distinguished the installation’s control room as the benchmark for others to follow. Additionally the Air Traffic Services Command, which provides air traffic services support to installations, has noted that “’coordination between AIC (Airspace Information Center) and Range Control is the standard that all facilities should strive for,’” noted Botello who said that air traffic control and range control is a win-win situation.
“This place gets very intense, but because of the way we’re set up, we’re able to maximize the airspace that we have probably better than a lot of other installations,” he said.
Wolf Amacker, Fort Bragg’s range control officer, agreed.
In a nod to their proficiency, he said that Fort Bragg uses 200,000 to 250,000, 50-caliber rounds a year that don’t go off the installation and don’t ever kill anybody.
“We’re the 911 force. We have operations by the most covert operations in the world, that they (staff) are in charge of making happen safely,” Amacker said. “When critical decisions are being made, I have to rely on their ability to make the safe decision. People don’t realize how much safety and operational ability we put in their hands. The important, split-second, critical decisions — they make it.”