Air traffic control in Iraq takes steel nerves, unique personality
TIKRIT, Iraq — Talking as fast as an over-caffeinated auctioneer, Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Leonard rattles off a string of words and numbers that would be indecipherable to a layperson.
But at Camp Speicher, which has one of the busiest airfields in the Army, the air traffic controller with the 3rd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, 25th Infantry Division out of Wheeler Army Airfield, Hawaii, has made himself perfectly understood.
Speicher handles as much air traffic as some of the larger commercial airports in the United States. Everything from unmanned aircraft with 4-foot wing spans to lumbering cargo planes buzzing in and out at all hours of the day.
There are some 15,000 takeoffs, landings and flybys a month, so it is understandable if Leonard talks like someone who needs to lay off the lattes.
“It’s like its own language,” he said of the abbreviations, acronyms and jargon that make up air traffic controller lingo.
The 43-year-old from San Antonio is remarkably cheerful for someone with such a notoriously stressful job.
“A surgeon once asked me how I could handle being an air traffic controller,” he said, laughing. “Are you kidding me? A surgeon asking me how to handle stress?”
Pressure is not a problem, he said, because he loves his profession. “It’s like any other job, if you don’t love it, you can be miserable,” he said.
The Army has a hard time training and keeping controllers because of the difficulty of the work coupled with the field’s many opportunities in the civilian market, Leonard said.
“It’s not easy,” he said of the job. “It takes a quick ability to take in knowledge.”
To make matters more challenging, the controllers at Speicher work in an antiquated and bullethole-ridden tower, guiding aircraft with little more than their two eyes and keen wits.
They do most of their work “all in their heads,” said the unit commander, Capt. Jorge Rosario, 28, of San Juan, Puerto Rico. There is a radar scope, but it is used only for challenging conditions, such as bad weather, he said.
For the most part, the controllers scan the horizon from the tower, check a map, and keep track of the aircraft by memory. After the sun goes down, they use night-vision scopes.
“It’s humbling to see what they do on a day-to-day [basis],” Rosario said.
Given the intensity of their work, controllers clock a 40-hour work week, compared with the round-the-clock duty of other fields.
But they certainly earn their down time, Rosario said. The brisk pace at Speicher means the controllers “don’t have the luxury of putting their feet up,” he said. And, during the busier parts of the day, it is not uncommon to see controllers racing in circles in the tower as they juggle various approaching aircraft.
“You can’t be timid,” said Sgt. Katrina Adams, 26, of Detroit. “We are in a job where our voice quality means everything.”
“Most controllers have an attitude in one fashion or another,” Leonard said, laughing.
Air traffic controllers can be quirky, Leonard said. He, for example, can recite the numbers of every credit card he has ever had, Leonard said.
Adams remembers the call signs of aircraft by a system of finger taps that she devised.
“Within the aviation brigade, this is definitely the most unique group,” Rosario said.