54th OSS ensures safe flight operations

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Michelle Ferrari
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs

As one of the largest training bases in the Air Force, one of Team Holloman’s missions is to graduate combat-ready pilots. While all members of Holloman assist in this mission, it's the 54th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controllers who regulate daily air operations, cultivating the next generation of aviators.

Air Traffic Controllers are tasked with managing the movement of aircraft both on the ground and in the air. They use radar, radio communication and advanced technologies, such as the electric terminal voice switch, to monitor and direct aircraft, providing essential guidance to pilots to prevent collisions and safeguard efficient traffic flow.

“Technology is incorporated in just about every phase of our ATC operations,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Shaneh Santos, 54th Operations Support Group ATC tower chief controller. “We rely on our equipment for weather information, departure and arrival information, ground movement, identification and location of aircraft in and around our airspace, coordination for aircraft movement outside of our airspace, and most importantly, for communication to keep our aircraft safe and separated.”

The Holloman tower oversees an average of 300 flight operations daily, involving MQ-9 Reapers, F-16 Vipers, QF-16 Vipers, T-38 Talons, C-12 Hurons, the Aero Club aircraft and various other transient research and development test aircraft.

“Holloman’s airfield configuration is considered AETC’s most complex airfield with a figure-four design, which enables our controllers to operate in various arrival and departure combinations to six intersecting runways,” said Santos. “This dynamic requires our controllers to operate with a significantly elevated level of situational awareness while routinely calculating airspeed, aircraft capabilities, wake turbulence separation and required aircraft maneuvers.”

The role of an air traffic controller is crucial to the safety and efficiency of military air operations. These highly-trained professionals ensure the safe and orderly flow of air traffic here. The job requires a combination of technical expertise, strong communication skills and the ability to perform under high-pressure situations.

“The most stressful part of this job is multitasking,” said U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Indya Wiggins, 54th OSS air traffic controller. “It’s particularly stressful because you have multiple people talking in your ear on different frequencies, you have to figure out what frequencies they’re talking on, or catch what everyone is saying all while having to get every aircraft where they need to be in an expeditious fashion.”

The advancement and continuous evolution of technology for ATC has empowered Holloman Tower’s controllers to execute the 49th Wing’s mission in building combat aircrews and to bring to fruition the wing’s vision of being America’s premier training wing.

“We have certainly come a long way in technology when we think about Archie W. League, who was considered the first U.S. air traffic controller in 1929,” said Santos. “His only means of aircraft communication were a red flag and a checkered flag while standing out in the field enduring all the weather elements.”

Holloman’s airspace is located within the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range restricted airspace, which frequently goes active for research and development activities, adding to the level of complexity for Holloman controllers.

In addition to controlling military aircraft, Holloman air traffic controllers also collaborate closely with civilian air traffic control agencies to facilitate the integration of military operations. This coordination is essential for both military readiness and civilian air travel, and it requires strong interpersonal skills and the ability to work effectively as part of a larger team.

“One of the biggest challenges I’m faced with as a leader is ensuring the cohesiveness of the team by ensuring that not only are we working well together but that morale is high as well,” said U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Zackery Hasty, 54th OSS senior watch supervisor. “When morale is high, then usually the team works well together and when the team is working well together, these pilots get their training done.”

Controllers must be prepared to work for long hours, including nights, weekends, and holidays, and must remain focused and alert at all times. They must be able to perform in a variety of environmental conditions, ranging from the controlled environment of a radar room to the exposed conditions of a mobile air traffic control tower in a forward operating area.

“It’s a very stressful job and challenging due to the complexity and frequency of everything happening at once,” said Hasty. “The safety of flight is of the utmost importance to us and on a typical day, I’m overseeing all the positions and ensuring that everyone is doing their job correctly.”

Despite these challenges, a career as an air traffic controller is a deeply rewarding career choice. According to Wiggins, air traffic control at Holloman provides a sense of professional growth for her, as she chose this career field because she wanted a career field that translated to the civilian side.

Today, Holloman controllers are in a tower surrounded by modern technology, overseeing the airfield giving them arguably, the best “office” view of White Sand National Park and the Sacramento Mountains.

“We get to see aircraft,” said Hasty. “There are not a lot of people that get to see them up close and personal. That’s a pretty unique experience.”