A Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-15J takes off for a Cope Thunder familiarization training mission at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska.

A Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-15J takes off for a Cope Thunder familiarization training mission at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. (Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

When a mix of countries convenes for a large-scale air combat exercise such as Cooperative Cope Thunder, now under way in Alaska, language barriers must be overcome for the safety of pilots in the cockpits of sleek fighter aircraft.

Cope Thunder has lured an additional 500 people and 40 aircraft to Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, from Japan, India, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and NATO. It concludes Friday.

Some exercise aircraft also are staging sorties from Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, in Alaska’s interior.

Air traffic controllers manning the Elmendorf control tower play a key role in the movement of planes entering and leaving the vast airspace over the 49th state.

Japan’s contingent of 275 people at the exercise includes F-15 pilots who must communicate with American air traffic controllers.

Helping make operations flow smoothly and dealing with the language barrier with Japanese Air Self-Defense Force F-15 pilots is a Japanese officer working in the control tower alongside his American counterparts.

“Even though English is the universal language used when flying, miscommunications still happen between pilots and air traffic controllers,” Tech. Sgt. Timothy Van Houten, a 3rd Operations Support Squadron air traffic watch supervisor, said in a PACAF news release.

Before the foreign pilots head to Elmendorf, they are required to know Air Force regulations, Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. regulations when flying in U.S. air space.

JASDF pilots selected for Cope Thunder were tested in English competency weeks before making the first-ever deployment to North America, said Capt. Rochelle Dowdell, 5th Air Force spokeswoman at Yokota Air Base, Japan.

JASDF Capt. Yoshifumi Nakamura, along with other experienced JASDF F-15J pilots, are working in the tower as a supervisors, ready to step in at a moment’s notice to deal with any miscommunications among the tower, and Japanese pilots and ground personnel.

During Cope Thunder operations, the JASDF supervisor of flying monitors frequencies used by the tower, ground personnel working on the runway and pilots in the air.

Whenever confusion may arise, he is able to talk with the air traffic controller face-to-face to quickly resolve and miscommunications and relay clear instructions back to the pilot within seconds.

“We feel sometimes it is hard to understand the tower,” said Nakamura. “When problems arise, we sometimes ask the controller to slow down. It is very useful to have the face-to-face contact with the controllers and to have daily briefings on operations.”

Not only do Japanese pilots find this key link between pilots and the tower helpful, but Air Force air traffic controllers say they also benefit from the added step.

“We are able to go to that person and relay face-to-face the instructions, which is a much easier barrier to overcome,” Van Houten said. “The Japanese supervisor of flying explains to his pilot what we want him to do. That’s a real help to have a him in the tower.”

The language barrier is one of the biggest challenges for the younger troops, he added.

“When they experience the heavier accents of the pilots — it’s a great training opportunity for them to have us there as supervisors to explain to them about what the pilots are asking,” he said.

The mix of aircraft and nationalities tends to make things a little busier for flight-line operations, too.

Working with foreign pilots and watching Elmendorf’s aero club pilots leaving the same runway is a learning experience for Senior Airman Terry Donaldson, a 3rd OSS air traffic controller.

“It’s lot more difficult,” Donaldson said. “It increases your workload and requires you to pay a lot more attention.”

Normally, he listens for certain things when a pilot is responding to control instructions and has them read the commands back.

“Now I have to make sure they understand what I told them to do, and at the same time, deal with other traffic that is stationed here,” he said.

— Pacific Air Forces News Service sources were used in this report.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now