Photo Information

Pfc. Andrew Patterson, air traffic controller and a Pittsburgh native, records the weather sequence in the Automated Terminal Information System at the Air Traffic Control facility aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif. April 15. The A.T.I.S. updates pilots and other towers of the weather conditions specific to our airfield.

Photo by Cpl. Melissa Wenger

‘We control the aircraft’

8 May 2013 | Cpl. Melissa Wenger

Anyone living near Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., knows the sound. Whether they are F/A-18 Super Hornets or MV-22 Ospreys, they’re flying overhead looking for a place to rest their weary wings and rotors. Air traffic controllers make sure they can do so safely and expeditiously.

The tower facility coordinates the movement of any and all aircraft that enters or departs MCAS Miramar’s airspace. These Marines are entrusted with keeping millions of military dollars and the Corps’ most import asset, Marines, from being lost in collisions or mishaps.

“Everyone thinks we’re the ones on the flight line with the glow sticks,” said Lance Cpl. Hollie Mulvihill, air traffic controller and a Woodbridge, V.A., native. “That’s not us; we control the aircraft. We’re able to get them safely to the ground, but we’re definitely not the people on the flight line with the glow sticks telling everyone where to go.”

 Thomas Raynor, air traffic controller, tower examiner for the Federal Aviation Administration, and a Milford, Conn. native, has more than 23 years of experience with air traffic control, and one thing has remained the same over the years. A big part of completing the mission is abiding by all the guidelines of the FAA, the Department of the Navy, and those specific to that tower facility.

“It keeps you on your toes,” he said. “You have to be quick-witted and make quick decisions with all those rules and regulations at the front of your forehead so when you’re talking to the aircraft, you’re able to spit out what they need to know and make sure it’s safe and expeditious.”

It takes more than a great memory for all those regulations, spatial awareness and a knack for staying focused to succeed in air traffic control.  These Marines also need to be able to operate together like a well-oiled machine.

“You may be on the other side of the tower, but if one position makes a mistake, it could potentially affect your position and ruin the way you want to manage your traffic,” said Sgt Steven Belske, control tower operator, radar watch supervisor, and a Chicago native. “[This] is why the training process is so rigorous. We want to avoid mistakes at all costs.”

The Marines up in that tower also coordinate with a group closer to the ground.

 “Well down here [in the radar room], we don’t have eyes on the actual aircraft,” said Mulvihill. “We have little green dots on the scope, so when it’s peak air time… you have just a ton of these little green dots and we’re able to highlight the ones that are coming into our airspace and control them, but it’s pretty busy.”

Whether up in the tower or down in the radar room, ATC Marines exhibit key qualities: knowledge, accountability, and the capacity to adapt and overcome.

 “It’s an extremely stressful job because you have different situations every time you have different aircraft,” said Mulvihill. “There are different wind variables, you have different pilots that are newer or they’re further into training and are set in their ways, and you also have different controlling techniques.”

To be able to keep afloat of any situation, Belske said they are perpetually in training mode.

“Training is continuous at Miramar and even after you earn a qualification, there are always new techniques to learn,” he explained. “The workflow itself isn't really affected by the training process because everything is pre-coordinated by the supervisors, so everyone knows ahead of time where and when they have to be.”

Air traffic controllers also need to be able to cipher through the din of a busy approach to get their piece of the puzzle in place.

 “We’re talking nonstop and coordinating, so it’s just words, words, words and that’s when the tower team concept comes into play,” said Cpl. Philip Ivey, control tower operator and a Greenville, S.C. native. “Everyone’s working together.  It’s like a bunch of bees in a hive, just all working really fast. It’s really loud and bustling.”

While the ATC Marines work really well together as a team, sometimes, it helps Mulvihill to know that someone else is looking after them too.

“I always say a prayer before I do an approach,” she said.  “I pray, ‘God, please bless me with the wisdom to get this aircraft safely on the ground.”