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Air traffic controller Airman 1st Class Felix Rodriguez looks over “tower” displays at RAF Lakenheath’s new $1 million simulator. This mock air traffic control tower allows airmen to train on simulated emergencies either on the ground or in the airspace within five miles of the base.
Air traffic controller Airman 1st Class Felix Rodriguez looks over “tower” displays at RAF Lakenheath’s new $1 million simulator. This mock air traffic control tower allows airmen to train on simulated emergencies either on the ground or in the airspace within five miles of the base. (Jason Chudy / S&S)
Air traffic controller Airman 1st Class Felix Rodriguez looks over “tower” displays at RAF Lakenheath’s new $1 million simulator. This mock air traffic control tower allows airmen to train on simulated emergencies either on the ground or in the airspace within five miles of the base.
Air traffic controller Airman 1st Class Felix Rodriguez looks over “tower” displays at RAF Lakenheath’s new $1 million simulator. This mock air traffic control tower allows airmen to train on simulated emergencies either on the ground or in the airspace within five miles of the base. (Jason Chudy / S&S)
Air traffic controller Airman 1st Class Allison Kornbau looks over RAF Lakenheath’s “flightline” at the base’s new $1 million simulator. “It’s realistic,” said Kornbau, who has been an air traffic controller at Lakenheath for less than a year. “You look out the windows [of the real tower] and see the exact same thing.”
Air traffic controller Airman 1st Class Allison Kornbau looks over RAF Lakenheath’s “flightline” at the base’s new $1 million simulator. “It’s realistic,” said Kornbau, who has been an air traffic controller at Lakenheath for less than a year. “You look out the windows [of the real tower] and see the exact same thing.” (Jason Chudy / S&S)

Air traffic controllers Airman 1st Class Allison Kornbau and Airman 1st Class Felix Rodriguez watched as an F-15 circled in from the north, landed, then burst into flames at the end of the RAF Lakenheath runway.

Rodriguez reached for the emergency phone, then paused. A few seconds later the aircraft disappeared, flames and all.

Scratch one crisis, thanks to a few keystrokes from control tower watch supervisor Staff Sgt. Benton Spencer, who sat at a computer console behind the two 48th Operations Support Squadron airmen.

Rather than facing a real emergency, the air traffic controllers were taking part in a computer-generated scenario on the base’s new $1 million air traffic control simulator. Training on the device began less than a month ago.

“This is as realistic as current technology allows,” said Maj. Jamie Flanders, airfield operations flight commander.

Flanders commands the base’s 15 air traffic controllers and also was part of the team that selected the system for the Air Force.

Up to four air traffic control tower personnel at a time can run through various scenarios on the simulator, which is designed to look like half of the real tower, complete with computer consoles, an emergency phone and even a bomb-threat checklist.

Six large projection-TV sized screens show a stunningly detailed picture of the base’s flightline and buildings, right down to the paint schemes — and rust — on some of the buildings and revetments, Flanders said.

And if the base gets new buildings or aircraft, the system can be upgraded to incorporate them.

“It’s realistic,” said Kornbau, who has been an air traffic controller at Lakenheath for less than a year. “You look out the windows [of the real tower] and see the exact same thing.”

The system can simulate changes in weather, cloud cover, time of day and even add hazards like vehicles driving on the runway or large flocks of birds flying past the airfield.

The high-tech simulator replaces a definitely low-tech training system — a white board with black lines representing runways and magnets with printouts of different aircraft shapes and call signs pasted on them.

The tower controllers are responsible for all aircraft on the ground or airspace within five miles of the base. New controllers are required to pass a base-specific qualification program for wherever they’re stationed, complete monthly refresher training on topics ranging from bird hazards to adverse weather, and train on specific Air Force-directed situations.

The system drastically cuts training time.

“There have been simulators in [the States] for some time,” Flanders said. “There is a 40 to 50 percent decrease in training time.”

Less training time means more time for the 15 controllers to be directing real aircraft, he said.

And if one of those controllers gets orders to another Air Force base, or is deployed downrange, she can get a sneak peek at the place.

“You get a disk of the base and download it,” Flanders said.

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