Air Force Tech. Sgt. Joseph Ames hones his air traffic control skills on a simulator at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Joseph Ames hones his air traffic control skills on a simulator at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany — The 270-degree screen powered by more than 17 computers would be a video game junkie’s dream.

But for air-traffic controllers with the Spangdahlem-based 52nd Operations Support Squadron, it is serious business.

The $850,000 air-traffic control simulator is a far cry from the model airplanes that controllers have used for decades, and soon it will be at the busiest Air Force bases throughout Europe.

The screens offer a 270-degree view from the base’s air-traffic control tower and can simulate any plane in the Air Force inventory, from A-10 Warthogs to huge C-5 Galaxy cargo planes. Users can also play the part of Mother Nature and change the weather with the click of the mouse.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Tech. Sgt. Joseph Ames, an Air Force air traffic controller since 1992. “It’s amazing to me.”

The custom-designed program is so detailed that it includes flocks of birds, which can pose a danger to jets in real life. Simulator pilots also respond to voice commands from air-traffic controllers speaking into headsets.

Simulator designers took photographs from the actual air-traffic control tower to help them re-create the view for the simulator. The program includes hangars and bunkers with the same markings as on base.

When construction to the flight line is complete, the designers plan to add buildings to the program to update it.

Spangdahlem, which has 15 air-traffic controllers, is the first base in Europe to receive the simulators. Ramstein Air Base in Germany is next in line to get the simulator, followed by bases in England and Turkey this spring.

Staff Sgt. Timothy Hamilton, an air-traffic controller, said the simulator is both beneficial to training and fun.

“It’s a change of pace,” Hamilton said. “It’s something we’ve never done before.

“I like the fact that I can make it snow. I can make it rain, foggy, haze. I can get snow squalls. And I can do that all on the fly. That’s fun for me.”

The high-tech simulator, which the controllers plan to train on daily, is a huge contrast to the way they used to train. In the past, controllers used model airplanes to run through different scenarios. It required a lot more creativity.

“We would use toy airplanes, anything we could buy at the store,” said Master Sgt. Ricardo Young, the 52nd tower chief controller.

The simulator is expected to boost proficiency and cut the amount of training time.

“It’s a completely different ballgame,” said Young, who went through controller training in 1992. “But it’s a nice change.”

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