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ATC: Keeping eyes on our birds in the sky

Air traffic control airmen perform operations in the airfield tower at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Jan. 5, 2017. ATC ensures the safety of aircraft in the airspace around Kunsan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Michael Hunsaker/Released)

Air traffic control airmen perform operations in the airfield tower at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Jan. 5, 2017. ATC ensures the safety of aircraft in the airspace around Kunsan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Michael Hunsaker/Released)

Staff Sgt. Jeffery Howard, 8th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, adjusts his radio frequency at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Jan. 5, 2017. Howard’s primary responsibilities include communicating with aircraft entering and leaving Kunsan airspace. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Michael Hunsaker/Released)

Staff Sgt. Jeffery Howard, 8th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, adjusts his radio frequency at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Jan. 5, 2017. Howard’s primary responsibilities include communicating with aircraft entering and leaving Kunsan airspace. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Michael Hunsaker/Released)

Staff Sgt. Jeffery Howard, 8th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, looks at the runway through his binoculars at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Jan. 5, 2017. Howard ensures the runway is clear from any hazards to aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Michael Hunsaker/Released)

Staff Sgt. Jeffery Howard, 8th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, looks at the runway through his binoculars at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Jan. 5, 2017. Howard ensures the runway is clear from any hazards to aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Michael Hunsaker/Released)

Binoculars sit on a desk in the air traffic control tower at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Jan. 5, 2017. ATC Airmen use various tools to ensure the safe monitoring and maneuvering of aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Michael Hunsaker/Released)

Binoculars sit on a desk in the air traffic control tower at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Jan. 5, 2017. ATC Airmen use various tools to ensure the safe monitoring and maneuvering of aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Michael Hunsaker/Released)

Senior Airman Justine King, 8th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, monitors the position of an aircraft on a radar screen at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Jan. 5, 2017. Radar approach controllers are responsible for coordinating aircraft that fly within Kunsan’s airspace. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Michael Hunsaker/Released)

Senior Airman Justine King, 8th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, monitors the position of an aircraft on a radar screen at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Jan. 5, 2017. Radar approach controllers are responsible for coordinating aircraft that fly within Kunsan’s airspace. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Michael Hunsaker/Released)

Kunsan Air Base -- Everyone with a driver’s license has experienced the antsy feeling of sitting at a traffic light waiting for it to switch from red to green. Imagine if, in order to go, the driver had to wait for a person’s command to move.

Air traffic controllers here do just that, communicate with hundreds of planes in the sky and on the ground, giving the verbal greenlight to maintain a smooth flow of traffic in the airways. Through careful monitoring, maneuvering and communication, ATC ensures the safety of a fleet of aircraft in the airspace around Kunsan.

In order to handle the full area of responsibility surrounding Kunsan, operations are split between two teams, one located in the ATC tower and the other in the radar approach control building. Each team consists of various members with different areas of responsibility.

“The ground control operator is responsible for managing all the aircraft on the ground, including vehicles that are in the non-movement area,” said Senior Airman Justine King, 8th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller. “Flight data is responsible for providing different agencies such as base operations and security forces with departure and arrival times of aircraft. The local control operator coordinates the movement of outbound and inbound aircraft. The coordinator sequences aircraft during arrival with the help of radar-approach controllers. The watch supervisor is the lead and whatever they says goes, regardless of rank.”

King performs a critical part of the ATC mission in the RAPCON building, a less distinguishable facility than the ATC tower. Her job is carried out in a dark, windowless room filled with several radars displaying air traffic within a 60 mile radius of Kunsan.

Her focus and responsibility is on a much wider span of airspace than what her counterparts are monitoring in the tower.

“Tower controllers get to look out their windows and see the aircraft,” said King. “Their airspace includes from the tower out to around six miles out and up to 2,000 feet. They have a small portion of air space. ”Being comfortable with the responsibility of directing the traffic of multimillion dollar aircraft is not a skill learned overnight.

After completing a rigorous four-month technical training school, ATC Airmen constantly train and must be certified at each facility they are assigned to, according to Staff Sgt. Jeffery Howard, 8th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller.

“When you get to your first base most people spend between 12 to 20 months getting their first qualifications,” said King. “You get mentally beat up, and you have to have thick skin. But the reward is definitely worth it.”

In addition to working with two squadrons of F-16 Fighting Falcons and the 38th Fighter Group, ATC Airmen coordinate the movement of aircraft of two commercial airlines out of Gunsan airport.

The language barrier can sometimes affect communication, but with an integrated group of controllers, those difficulties are easier to overcome.

“The biggest advantage to having our Korean counterparts is when we have to coordinate with a full Korean ATC center like Incheon,” said King. “Sometimes, when we can’t communicate with them well enough, our Republic of Korea Air Force controllers will step in and coordinate for us, which makes it go a lot smoother.”

Everything that happens on an airfield is constantly under the watchful eye of air traffic controllers.

ATC plays a vital role in the air mission here, helping guide aircraft to the right positions to carry out their objectives. Through keen attention to detail, these Airmen ensure combined air superiority, which is dedicated to keeping peace in the region.