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Click here of photos of operations at the Kadena tower.

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — The elevator stops at floors one, two and three and then not again until nine and 10.

From there the cab of the control tower is a few more flights up and overlooks the entire stretch of Kadena’s airfield — F-15s on one side, KC-135s on another and all the other aircraft that make up the 18th Wing.

The cab is cramped and filled with quiet chatter mostly undecipherable to the uninitiated.

“ … Cessna 0172 left base five left.”

“ … Five right at delta echo … ”

If this were a movie, the camera would zoom in on one of the air traffic controllers, who would suddenly be frantic, yelling into his headset as others scrambled around him jabbing at the green radar screen.

But the scene in real life is much calmer than any Hollywood interpretation.

“Everyone always asks: ‘Is it stressful?’” Staff Sgt. Marcus Carter said about his job directing the skies. “There are three keys to doing this job. First, you have to be confident. Not arrogant, confident. You have to have a passion for it. And, you’ve got to do it well. It’s only stressful when you don’t have those three things. Really, it’s fun.”

The daily traffic count at Kadena averages about 200, and the five or six air traffic controllers in the tower at any given time make sure none of the aircraft crash into each other during departure and arrival. They call it separating and sequencing.

The tower cab seems to be either buzzing with activity or rather quiet.

“I like to say it’s long hours of calm interrupted by moments of terror,” said Staff Sgt. Oscar Alvarado, a watch supervisor who has wanted to do the job since he was a little kid.

On a recent afternoon one those calm stretches was broken by a report that “a pack of goats is on the runway.” Binoculars immediately went up, but the search ended in laughter — it turned out to be just a pilot prank.

The controller’s job is to guide the pilot from engine start to the runway to takeoff, and upon return, from approach to landing to taxiing back to the parking spot. Someone handles the movement on the ground, another keeps track of the flight data, and two others coordinate the takeoffs, landings and flow of air traffic. The watch supervisor keeps an eye on the whole operation.

When planes are returning to base, a controller tells the pilot which runway to use, the type of approach to do and the plane’s number in the landing order.

A few of the routes even get names, such as Carter’s “Caravan of Love,” in which the planes are sent out to follow each other in a big circle. There’s also a joke about having to send a plane so far out the pilot is in South Korea shopping.

“We all do the same job but we all do it completely different,” Staff Sgt. Dallas Tyler said.

Some controllers give more traffic calls than others, and some play it a little safer, preferring to have eight miles of separation between the aircraft on approach, for example, instead of the required six, he said.

The learning curve for air traffic control is fairly steep.

“There’s an incredible amount of information to learn,” said trainee Airman 1st Class Michael Weiss.

One hurdle is learning the lingo.

“It takes a while to develop the ear,” Tyler said.

But the learning doesn’t stop there — the controllers are constantly picking up tips from each other, Tyler said.

Hearing one controller route a couple of inbound planes in a way he said he had never thought of before, Tyler told him: “I’m going to take that from you.”

Carter joked that that’s copying, not learning — like on a separate afternoon when he gave one of the controllers a hard time for using the “Caravan of Love.”

“That’s cool, though. Then I know it’s not a dumb idea,” he said laughing.

Ultimately, the goal is to give everybody what they want — a phrase used so often one might think it’s the unofficial motto of the control tower.

The controllers have to temper what the individual pilots and commanders want to do with the needs of all the planes in the sky, said Master Sgt. Tom Craine, the tower’s chief controller.

“We provide a customer service to the pilots,” Carter said. “We want to accommodate their requests and we bend over backwards to accommodate when we can, but safety is paramount.”


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