Monday, 15 June 2020

Controlling the skies: US Air Force Yokota Air Base ATC

The sun rises over the Air Traffic Control Tower at Yokota Air Base, Japan, June 12, 2020. Air traffic controllers with the 374th Operations Support Squadron report for duty before an airfield opening. Responsible for managing the flow of aircraft through all aspects of their flight, ATC specialists ensure the safety and efficiency of air traffic on the ground and in the air. (U.S. Air Force photo by Yasuo Osakabe)
With traffic lights and lanes ushering vehicles where they need to go in an orderly fashion all too common on our roads on the ground, what little realize is that same framework exists in the sky above. While the sky does not have tangible lights as roads do, the communication provided by Yokota Air Base’s 374th Operations Support Squadron Air Traffic Control team act as that same kind of safety net, 24-hours a day -- allowing aircraft to get to their destinations safely.

“A lot of people know about the tower portion of our career field,” said Staff Sgt. Brandon Johnson-Farmer, 374th OSS OSAT air traffic control journeyman. “The tower portion is responsible for essentially a bubble of airspace directly over our flight line extending outwards. In that bubble, it is our job to visually ensure every aircraft arriving or departing our installation has an approved flight plan and are coordinated with from parking to takeoff and vice versa.”

With the ATC tower handling Yokota’s flight line out to a radius of 5 miles and 2,500 ft. of elevation, the lesser-known aspect of ATC, the Radar Approach Control team picks up an additional radius of 60 miles and 24,000 ft. of elevation, providing communications to meet aircraft needs of not just military equipment at Yokota, but every aircraft that makes its way through that airspace.

Tech. Sgt. Gregory Nitch, 374th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, monitors an aircraft at Yokota Air Base, Japan, June 11, 2020. Responsible for managing the flow of aircraft through all aspects of their flight, ATC specialists ensure the safety and efficiency of air traffic on the ground and in the air. (U.S. Air Force photo by Yasuo Osakabe)
“In that 60-mile radius we communicate with each and every aircraft that makes contact with our facility’s area of responsibility,” said Tech. Sgt. Jason Medina, 374th OSS OSAR watch supervisor. “This is in the upwards of 200 aircraft a day with traffic originating from Yokota, U.S. Navy Air Facility Atsugi, Japan Air Self-Defense Force Iruma Air Base, JASDF Tachikawa Air Base, and Chofu Airport.

“While the tower provides that visual assistance, all of our monitoring is done with radar. Once a plane enters our space we make contact and make sure they know where they need to go and that communication between us, the aircraft, and often times a lot of host-nation agencies prevents conflicts and any potential issues before they occur.”

As that coordination is paramount to maintaining the safety of not just Airmen and fellow service members, but the communities over which the aircraft fly, the process to obtaining and maintaining certification in the ATC career field is feat of itself, leaving only those truly worthy of the title air traffic controller.
A C-130J Super Hercules approaches the runway at Yokota Air Base, Japan, June 4, 2020. All aircraft inbound or outbound maintain communications with Yokota's air traffic controllers, maintaining a safe operating environment for all aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Yasuo Osakabe)

“It’s hard to make it in our career field,” said Tech. Sgt. James King, 374th OSS OSAR watch supervisor. “Our technical training alone has a high washout rate, but we are not even qualified to wear our occupational badge until we have completed our 5-level training and that takes over a year on on-the-job training. To top it all off, we have to requalify at every single facility we work at as each has their own specifications and requirements.

“While it is a challenge in its own right just getting to the point of being operational and proficient in our career field, I know we play a vital role in making the mission happen. The role we play and the challenges we face really brings us closer together as a career field.”

A sentiment shared by many of the controllers at Yokota.

“It is unique everywhere we go,” said Johnson-Farmer. “We adapt to new airframes, environments, and our team members, but that makes every location special. No matter where I go or have been, when I get to see our aircraft take off and I know the impact they are going have, that is something I am proud to be a part of.”

Story by Staff Sgt. Matthew Gilmore
Photos by Yasuo Osakabe

(Right to left) Tech. Sgt. James King and Staff Sgt. Marcus Jenkins, both 374th Operations Support Squadron radar approach control watch supervisors, perform daily operations with the RAPCON, June 11, 2020, at Yokota Air Base, Japan. Yokota's RAPCON members play a direct role in the wing's ability to conduct mission essential flight operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Yasuo Osakabe)

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