Face of Defense: Marine Controllers Keep Eyes Skyward
By Marine Corps Pfc. Grace Waladkewics
2nd Marine Aircraft Wing
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C., Dec. 31, 2013 The radar room and control tower here never shut down.
Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Ralph F. Pyles III, an approach controller with the Air Traffic Control tower, watches as an aircraft touches down on a runway at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina, Nov. 21, 2013. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pfc. Grace Waladkewics
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The air traffic controllers who oversee Cherry Point’s airspace and runway operations issue clearances and feed information to pilots, aircrews and ground crews. The controllers’ mission is to prevent collision of aircraft and ensure the smooth flow of traffic.
Cherry Point’s controllers supervise more than 5,000 square miles of airspace. Attention to detail, mission focus and teamwork are all imperative to the safety of Cherry Point service members and civilians in surrounding communities.
“Every day is a different scenario. Nothing is ever exactly the same,” said Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Michael Van, an ATC specialist. “There are so many things the runway can be used for, so every day is something different. Even though I am a supervisor, I am still constantly learning new things and new ways to operate.”
Marines in the control tower and radar room fill several unique roles. Each crew member has a job to do, whether it is granting access, watching the radar from the ground, directing aircraft and vehicles on the runway or feeding information to pilots. All jobs are essential to daily mission accomplishment.
The controllers aim to keep the air and ground space safe and accident free. Ensuring safe operations can be exhausting so teamwork and proficiency are key factors, according to Van.
“Maintaining safety is everyone’s responsibility,” Van said. “We take breaks and switch on and off like pilot and co-pilot so we don’t get burned out.”
The controllers conduct simulations and exercises to test their understanding and proficiency in their assigned roles and to identify ways to improve.
“ATC works very closely with the pilots and weather,” said Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Christopher Chase, an ATC specialist. “Anything could happen out of the blue within minutes and it is the job of ATC to keep pilots informed and safe.”
Training and education give the ATC Marines an edge and help alleviate some of the stress of day-to-day operations, according to Chase.
“There is an extreme level of stress at times because if someone makes a mistake it affects others’ lives,” Chase said. “Once you become a qualified controller, completing the intense training, you must perform at the top of your game 100 percent of the time.”