Air Traffic Control keeps Red Flag 21-3 aircraft, pilots safe

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Christian Conrad
  • 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

With an average of 210 flights taking off and landing a day during RF-A, the 354th Operations Support Squadron ATCs have their hands full, but for them, it’s all in a day’s work.

“There’s really no two ways about it,” said Staff Sgt. Kevin Weast, 354th OSS ATC. “210 flights a day is a lot and a [significant] uptick from our non-RED FLAG operations, but we put in the work to make sure we stay cool under that kind of pressure. From managing our manning needs in order to cover day and night operations to staying current on our training, we put the mechanisms in place to ensure our people don’t feel overwhelmed.”

Just as heat is used to temper steel, so too is RED FLAG used to sharpen the proficiencies of ATCs.

Although primarily an advanced aerial combat training exercise, the benefits of the otherwise pilot-centric scenarios also impact agencies that support them, like ATC.
“RED FLAG is 100 percent as beneficial for us as it is for pilots,” said Senior Airman Mark Landers, 354th OSS ATC. “Lives depend on the information we give the pilots. Whether aircraft take-off and land safely is really up to us, and if there are cracks or flaws in our processes, the results can be dire. RED FLAG helps us keep our operations seamless so that us being ready isn’t a matter of ‘we will be,’ but ‘we are.’”

In addition to the myriad Air Force units represented at RED FLAG, the U.S. Army also sent some of their own to train with their U.S. Air Force counterparts.
Spc. Russell McKnight, 152nd Aviation Battalion air traffic controller stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, is one such Soldier.

While the culture of the Army and Air Force might differ in certain respects, the mission doesn’t, and that opens up the opportunity to help better integrate the joint force, McKnight said.

“Whereas my job in the Army usually had me in mobile towers, directing traffic from maybe a dirt strip off the flight line, here we direct traffic from a fixed point with aircraft that I’m not used to seeing,” he said. “It’s a good experience to become more proficient in the work we do in a comprehensive way. It’s an opportunity to have more tools in the toolbelt and get more training.”

Ultimately, though, it’s not the hours spent in the tower or the training used to stay current and aloft of day-to-day operations that measure the success of the ATC mission, said Landers.

“Mission success for us occurs when our people and aircraft are safe,” he said. “If our aircraft can get out and do the training they need to do and get back safely, that’s a job well-done.”

RED FLAG 21-3 concludes Aug. 27, 2021.