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Sun, Jan 06, 2008

Balad Radar Air Traffic Controllers Run Skies Of Iraq

It looks simple in theory. All you have to do is keep little blips on a screen from bumping into each other. Now consider that those blips represent billions of dollars of government assets and hundreds of lives, all relying on one person's ability to control air traffic. This is the job of the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron radar air traffic controllers at Balad Air Base, Iraq, working in one of the busiest combined en route radar approach, or CERAP, control facilities, where it's not unfamiliar to see more than 550 aircraft operations in just one day.

But don't confuse these radar controllers with tower controllers who manage the airport. "We manage all the arrivals and departures of aircraft in middle Iraq," said Staff Sgt. Elida Bermudez, a 332nd EOSS air traffic controller and CERAP watch supervisor, deployed from Travis Air Force Base, Calif.

"It's different working here than anywhere else I've been," Sergeant Bermudez said. "The workload -- the airspace -- I'm used to only heavies, and all it takes is one phone call to take most of our airspace away, leaving us with only a minimal amount of airspace to work with." Imagine standing above a beehive looking down, seeing all the busy bees zooming and zipping back and fourth in harmony. The same can be said about the airspace around Balad Air Base and central Iraq, except these bees don't just buzz, they roar.

 

Instead of the aircraft instinctively knowing where to go like bees, they trust an elite group of more than 30 Airmen to keep them safely separated from each other, either laterally or by altitude. Sergeant Bermudez said when it comes to controlling traffic, "I like it, everyday has something different. But you have to know what you can and can't handle. You have to know when to say 'uncle' for the safety of aircraft, and not let your ego get in the way of a potentially unsafe situation."

She said the easiest way to overcome those situations is to keep practicing, and absorb the knowledge from those who are more experienced. One way of getting the experience is working in all seven positions in the CERAP: Two approach/departure control positions with an assist make up the terminal section, and two en route (or center) control positions with an assist and a flight data position.

The approach/departure position works directly with aircraft departing and arriving Balad AB. An approach controller sequences and separates inbound aircraft as well as getting positive identification of departing aircraft, while the assist coordinates aircraft movement with adjacent sectors and fills out flight data strips.

The CERAP's en route section handles aircraft transiting central Iraq.

"The CERAP's en route position owns the airspace from 19,000 to 28,000 feet in the air," said Master Sgt. Verlyn Booker, a 332nd EOSS air traffic controller and CERAP watch supervisor, deployed from Moody AFB, Ga.

The other position is flight data. The primary role of flght data is to relay the airspace and traffic in central Iraq between the CERAP and King Pin, a combat aircraft controlling agency.

"It's tough work, but if you take care of the Airmen in position they will take care of you and more importantly, the airspace," Sergeant Bermudez said. [ANN Salutes Staff Sgt. Travis Edwards, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs]

FMI: www.af.mil

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