Little Rock Air Force Base's collection of feature articles

Feature Search


Air traffic control: Growing real world skills in simulated environments

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Rhett Isbell
  • 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

“Little Rock Tower, this is ROCK01, Little Rock Tower, this is ROCK01, Little Rock Tower, this is ROCK01 …”

This is a common phrase heard in the Little Rock Air Force Base Aircraft Control Tower room overlooking the entire breadth of the runway, but even more so in the simulator training room found just a few floors below.

Airman 1st Class Ashley McDowell, 19th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control apprentice, attempts to contact a pilot in charge of a C-130J as it prepares to land on Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. She has to juggle multiple incoming and outgoing aircraft at once and trains for this by using the primary tool for air traffic controllers upgrade training - a simulator designed to encompass the entirety of her job responsibilities.

The 19th OSS Airmen who operate in the control tower on Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., are charged with directing aircraft coming in and out of the base. Given the basics of how to accomplish this at technical school, Airmen go to their bases to receive further instruction on the specifics of their jobs and to learn exactly how to execute them effectively. They do this through dozens of hours spent on a life-like simulator and constant on-the-job training.

“The purpose of the simulator is to supplement a live training environment, increase job proficiency and facilitate upgrade training without slowing mission operations,” said Master Sgt. Terence Horn, 19th OSS chief controller. “We’re able to demonstrate anything an Airman might encounter in the real air traffic control tower such as; increasing or decreasing traffic, incorporating inflight or ground aircraft emergencies or inclement weather.”

Air traffic control Airmen logged 2,900 hours on the simulator in 2017, while learning the rules and regulations they’ll need for their Air Force career, as well as familiarizing themselves with the rules of the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Our technical school is an approved FAA air traffic control course,” said Master Sgt. Lenn Bassett, 19th OSS assistant chief controller. “This means that we are certified FAA controllers, but we also have to learn Air Force specific regulations as well.”

This dual responsibility can be hard to balance and can be made even more complicated when human elements are added.  

“Having to learn how to communicate clearly through our radios was one of the hardest parts of the job for me,” McDowell said. “That was a big obstacle to overcome because it completely messes up your plans. So I’m glad that I got to figure it out in the sim and then apply it in the real control tower.”

Nearing the end of her upgrade training, McDowell found that she can appreciate those long hours spent training on the simulator. It equipped her to perform how she practices, ultimately generating safe and effective mission execution every time.

“Having the simulator there to help me learn how to deal with hairy situations and ironing out the specifics on details that you struggle with is really helpful,” McDowell said. “It’s satisfying to be able to work through something that you’d been thinking about without having to risk the mission.”