News | March 23, 2023

Air Traffic Controllers: Helping Pilots Find the Needle in the Haystack

By Petty Officer 2nd Class Malcolm Kelley

The skies are dark, the weather has taken a turn for the worse and the MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter is running low on fuel in the middle of the ocean. The pilots follow radar signals to amphibious assault carrier USS Tripoli’s (LHA 7) coordinates, but it is nowhere in sight. They make another pass, but still no luck. Time is running out, but the crew is not as alone as they might seem.

Within Tripoli’s Amphibious Air Traffic Control Center (AATCC), air traffic controllers monitor and analyze radar returns and review the state of aircraft fuel levels, while senior personnel speak to pilots as they use radar vectors to build a roadmap back to the ship.

“The room gets different when things don’t go according to plan,” said Air Traffic Controller 1st Class John Bosio. “We recognize the somberness of it, and the weight of our role in bringing all souls aboard the aircraft safely back to the ship.”

Air traffic control is often an unseen but nonetheless crucial aspect of flight operations aboard Tripoli. At 844 feet long and approximately 43,000 tons, the amphibious assault carrier is one of the largest warships in the Navy. However, trying to locate it within hundreds of miles of open sea would be all but impossible without assistance from radar guidance to safely navigate back to that relatively tiny 844 feet.

Air Traffic Controller 1st Class David Sudbeck said executing safe flight operations from AATCC requires hundreds of hours of practice.

“On days when we don’t have flight operations, or if it’s a slow day, we do simulated training to get junior personnel caught up,” he said.

Air Traffic Controller Airman Dylan Fields, a newcomer to the rating, said that he leaps at every chance to learn more about the job and to become more knowledgeable about every workstation in AATCC. His training includes identifying fleeting radar blips and using that skillset to send aircraft critical information.

“I was a college kid, then I was a bartender and now I’m an air traffic controller,” Fields said. “This is easily the coolest job I have ever had. I’m really looking forward to the day when I talk to my first aircraft.”

Unit cohesion and teamwork are essential for executing successful flight operations, which is built through practice and growing the proficiency of junior personnel, Bosio said.
“I can’t wait to become more involved,” Fields said. “Being in the room and seeing how well we work together is the most satisfying part of the job for me so far.”

Lt. Cody Hull, Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 23 assistant officer-in-charge, said he appreciates the importance of AATCC more than most. He recently flew his MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter safely back to Tripoli through hazardous weather with help from the air traffic controllers.

“As a pilot, they are extremely critical for our mission,” Hull said. “They are a reliable asset, both on days when the weather is clear, and when it is deteriorating.”

Hull briefs with AATCC in person almost every day and advises pilots and aircrew members to join simulated training sessions with air-traffic controllers to become familiar with a different aspect of flight operations.

“Tripoli’s air traffic controllers have already successfully aided in bringing one helicopter back in below-minimum weather conditions,” Hull said. “I’d advise aircrew members and pilots to always request to practice approaches whenever possible, so they can build proficiency for when it matters most.”

The trust between pilots and air traffic controllers is forged through countless hours of training, practice and real-world achievements. It remains an unseen yet critical element of mission success.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Malcolm Kelley is a communications specialist with USS Tripoli (LHA 7) public affairs.