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8th FW RAPCON “cave trolls” ensure safe, efficient air-traffic flow

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Lisa Slater, 8th Operations Support Squadron Air Traffic Control training NCO in-charge, views a display screen showing aircraft in the surrounding airspace at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Aug. 2, 2017.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Lisa Slater, 8th Operations Support Squadron Air Traffic Control training NCO in-charge, views a display screen showing aircraft in the surrounding airspace at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Aug. 2, 2017. Slater, who works in the Radar Approach Control section, provides critical flight information to any aircraft within their area of responsibility, which stretches approximately 25 miles in each direction and ranges from the surface up to 22,500 ft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victoria H. Taylor)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Nichole Headley, 8th Operations Support Squadron Airfield Automation Management NCO in-charge, views a display screen showing aircraft in the surrounding airspace at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Aug. 2, 2017.

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Nichole Headley, 8th Operations Support Squadron Airfield Automation Management NCO in-charge, views a display screen showing aircraft in the surrounding airspace at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Aug. 2, 2017. Headley, who works in the Radar Approach Control section, is responsible for directing aircraft at larger distances that cannot be visually seen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victoria H. Taylor)

KUNSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Tucked away beside the Air Traffic Control tower, resides a windowless room occupied by Airmen assigned to the 8th Operations Support Squadron Radar Approach Control flight whose responsibility it is to maintain the safe and efficient flow of inbound and outbound aircraft at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea.

Jokingly nicknamed “cave trolls”, due to their dimly lit occupational quarters, their job is to provide critical flight information to any aircraft within their area of responsibility, which stretches approximately 25 miles in each direction and ranges from the surface up to 22,500 ft.

“We primarily work with our 8th Fighter Wing aircraft, but we also frequently work with the Republic of Korea Air Force 35th Flying Group,” said Tech. Sgt. John Addams, 8th OSS RAPCON watch supervisor. “We control them all the way out to their Military Operations Area, where they go to practice different maneuvers and tactics they would use in a real-world situation. Once they complete their training mission, we re-identify them and safely bring them back to Kunsan.”

Simply put, RAPCON manages aircraft at larger distances than can be visually seen, while those assigned to the tower deal with the smaller air space surrounding the flight line and control take-offs and landings.

“When we experience inclement weather days with low visibility, it sometimes makes it more difficult for the pilots to maneuver through so communication is key,” said Addams. “That’s when we make our money.”

However, weather conditions aren’t the only challenges the RAPCON team faces. Like many overseas locations, cultural differences play a large role when conducting joint operations and can test how the mission is accomplished.

“The airspace at Kunsan is relatively straight forward, but one of the challenges here is the natural language barrier between us and our ROKAF counterparts,” said Addams. “English is the international language of ATC, but it’s not always everyone’s first language; sometimes it takes a few days to tune your ear and listen to what it is the pilots are trying to convey and then in-turn broadcast your transitions in a way that is easy for them to understand.”

Addams went on to say that if the communication is not clear and concise, it could potentially lead to an unsafe situation. With the Wolf Pack constantly training, it’s not uncommon to have more than 12 aircraft operating within the AOR at any given time. It’s up to the RAPCON to ensure they are in contact with them, all while adhering to the laws of the airspace.

“Some people think that it’s a really stressful job, but it’s only stressful if you’re new to it, or honestly, if you’re bad at it,” said Addams. “The concept of not letting planes touch is pretty simple, but this career has a lot of stipulations and requirements that you must abide by to ensure the safety of our pilots.”

Although each individual Airmen is well trained, it can be challenging for one person to coordinate a heavy amount of traffic and that’s why RAPCON uses the team concept to have each other’s back.

“One of my favorite things about ATC is that for the most part, rank doesn’t affect what role you are given,” said Addams. “When you are appointed to a position and you’re working with aircraft, it doesn’t matter if you’re a one-striper or a Chief, you’re the boss. There is still the respect of rank, but above all we are a team and we have to trust each other.”

Ensuring the safe and efficient flow of all air traffic operations is no simple task, but here at Kunsan it’s vital. Whether the challenge is weather conditions or cross-cultural barriers, the “cave trolls” of RAPCON are ready to overcome.

“The mission here at Kunsan is to ‘Take the Fight North’ and the ones doing that are our pilots,” said Addams. “The fact that I have a direct hand in ensuring that mission is successful is pretty awesome.”