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Face of Defense: Airman Controls Air Force’s Busiest Airfield

By Air Force Senior Airman Scott Saldukas
47th Flying Training Wing

LAUGHLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Texas, Feb. 22, 2012 – Like most other boys, Air Force Staff Sgt. John Hammer dreamed of growing up and being a professional football star. Instead, the 30-year-old husband and father of three is a senior watch supervisor at the Air Force’s busiest airfield.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Staff Sgt. John Hammer watches a monitor in the Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, radar approach control center, Feb. 15, 2012. Hammer and his team control the busiest tower in the Air Force, controlling a combined 337,436 operations. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Nathan L. Maysonet

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Before joining the Air Force in 2005, Hammer lived and grew up in Knob Noster, Mo., where he held a full-time job and was enrolled as a full-time student.

"Before coming in, I was working concrete construction full time while going to school at a community college full time," he said. "It was tough. It was hard to make ends meet and concentrate on education."

Hammer thought about joining the Air Force for nearly two years, he said, before finally deciding to cross into the blue.

"Initially, I just wanted a stable career and the possibilities to further my education," he said. "I was looking to get into computer security, [heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems] or something I could think of at that point which would benefit me outside the Air Force."

That all changed when someone in the Delayed Enlistment Program got cold feet and dropped out, which opened an air traffic controller slot, causing Hammer to leave for basic training sooner than he had anticipated.

"My recruiter said, 'John, if you take air traffic control, you can be out of here in a few weeks,'" Hammer said. "At that point, I was outside pouring concrete in hundred-plus-degree weather. That's when I told him I would love to leave."

Freed from the monotony of laying concrete, Hammer was determined to give his all to the new-found opportunity the Air Force would provide. At the time, he had no idea what lay ahead.

"It wasn't until tech school before I actually realized what being a controller would really entail,” he said. “To be honest, it was quite overwhelming."

After arriving at tech school, Hammer went through a strenuous, six-month training period for learning the basics of his new job in a course that had a high washout rate. When he arrived here after tech school, the training only got more intense.

"It's day-in and day-out studying," he said. "You'll take 12 to 14 written exams after arriving here within your first year. Then you have to get watched while you're in position and get mentored by your trainer. I would have to say that is the most stressful part of the job."

With the high intensity and responsibility levels of the job, Hammer said, one person always was in his corner: his older brother, Joel.

"I would constantly go to and tell him, ‘I can't do this, I'm not cut out for this,’" Hammer said. "He would always tell me ‘Don't quit, don't give up’ and would always provide me with words of encouragement. I would second-guess myself and think maybe I do deserve to be out there on a construction site, and he would always say that I don't. If anybody inspired me to get to where I am, it would be my older brother."

After working his way through training and earning his spot to control, Hammer now runs a shift in the radar approach control section as the senior watch supervisor, where at any given time he could oversee up to 23 people.

Hammer and his team control 62 airfields with 10,000 square miles of airspace within 100 miles of Laughlin.

On Jan. 10, Hammer and the rest of the air traffic control team were announced to be in control of the busiest tower in the Air Force, controlling a combined 337,436 operations.

"It's my responsibility as a senior watch supervisor to make sure all of the controllers are doing their job up to par or better," he said. "It's a huge responsibility. We have to fly missions and sorties to get pilots qualified to complete Laughlin's mission. In doing so, graduating pilots ensures we maintain the world's strongest air power."

The best part of the job is how there is always something new to discover, he said -- a far cry from the life he left behind.

"Essentially, it's always a new puzzle to figure out, constantly arranging these moving parts so that everything flows smoothly," he said. "You know when there is nothing to show for your work at the end of the day, it's a good thing."

Five years in, Hammer still can't believe how far he has come.

"I never thought when I was pouring concrete I would be doing what I do now," he said. "I remember being outside with guys from the construction team, and I would see an aircraft and hope I would be talking to them one day. I really couldn't even fathom what I would be getting into, let alone dealing with the busiest combined air traffic control tower in the Air Force."

Knowing he has excelled in one of the most stressful jobs in the Air Force is rewarding, he said, but he’s quick to add that he couldn't have done it without the inspiration his brother provided during his journey.

In 2008, John's brother and biggest supporter, Joel, was killed by a drunk driver.

"It has definitely given me more motivation to improve and get better," he said of Joel’s death. "Any time I'm faced with any type of adversity in life, I automatically resort to his words of inspiration and wisdom. The motivation factor is always there to do better because of his influence on my life."

Hammer said carries the lessons he has learned from a brother who meant so much to him onto the job every day. That positive influence is paramount in the air traffic controller field that emphasizes the need to help each other, he added.

"People think that we are snobbish, but we are like a big family, because what we deal with on a day-to-day basis may seem like a different language to other people," the senior watch supervisor said. "So the way we interact with each other is a lot different than the way we would interact with somebody who is unfamiliar with what we do. We train, we teach and police each other constantly so we are always on our toes and getting better."


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