Northwest Military Blogs: McChord Flightline Chatter

April 20, 2017 at 10:07am

Tower team averts incident

The 62nd Operations Support Squadron air traffic controllers look on at the McChord Field flight line from the tower, April 11, on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Naomi Shipley

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The 62nd Operations Support Squadron air traffic control tower at McChord Field responded quickly to prevent an aircraft incident April 11 on the McChord runway, when a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion seemingly lost all radio communications with them.

The P-3 was on the active runway preparing to depart when they were cleared to take off and did not respond.

"We lined the aircraft up to wait, preparing him for an imminent departure," said Senior Airman Christopher Bennett, 62nd Operations Support Squadron, air traffic controller. "When we lined him up to wait, he lost communications with the tower. We tried to clear him for takeoff, he didn't respond; we conducted radio checks, he didn't respond; we told him to exit the runway and he didn't respond."

If the tower loses communications with an aircraft pilot, they have a light gun they use to communicate with the aircraft, by flashing different colors with different meanings at them.

"I don't think he saw it," said Bennett. "We eventually got ahold of him and told him to exit the runway, but because we had an inbound it was pretty significant."  

If there's an aircraft anywhere on the runway no other aircraft can be on it, meaning the inbound aircraft could not land.

"The aircraft trying to land was seven miles out, which is two or three minutes away," said Bennett. "It usually wouldn't be a big deal, because the aircraft would be on takeoff roll, but because we couldn't get a hold of the guy, and therefore did not know what he was going to do, because he was cleared for takeoff, it was a big deal."

The controller sent the other aircraft around so as not to endanger either crews.

"It's what we train for," said Bennett. "Our job is to separate aircraft in the air and on the ground. We make sure to keep everyone safe, all while getting the aircraft in and out as fast as possible."

The 62nd OSS tower here controls traffic in the air and on the ground and yesterday they were doing what they are trained to, communicate with the aircraft and when said communication fails, they do everything they can to keep the crews safe.  

The controllers in that tower spend 13 months in training before they are expected to complete the job on their own, without having direct oversight by a more senior trainer.

"When we are in the simulators, our trainers will intentionally make planes go towards each other and put us in scenarios to make us uncomfortable," said Bennett.

Bennett said that as a result of their training the controllers always must have constant situational awareness and must use correct phraseology when speaking to the various aircraft pilots.

"What you say to a pilot is exactly how they should interpret it," said Bennett. "Before they move into our airspace, taxi or move at all, they have to talk to us, up until then, we're basically just waiting for them to call us."

The tower has a radar that indicates what type of aircraft, their call sign and altitude within 64 miles of the tower.

Overall, the controllers agree that communication amongst themselves and the aircraft crews is more than key.

Senior Airman Austin Corcoran, 62nd OSS air traffic controller, said the controllers heavily rely on their radio communications to speak to the aircraft.

"Communication is key," said Corcoran. "We use different radio frequencies for ground control and in the air. That's why the Air Traffic Control and Landing Systems has a very important job, too."

The ATCALS airmen are the ones in charge of making sure the radios the tower use work.

"There's a big push to make our equipment electronically controlled," said Corcoran. "Some of the navigation aids our pilots use are electronic."

However, the downside to the shift towards more electronically controlled communication systems are if something actually happens to the equipment, the controllers would not have anyone to fix it.

"We can't do our job without communication," said Corcoran. "And people entrust us to do our jobs."

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