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Master Sgt. Michael Bardsley and other Air Force air traffic controllers at Balad Air Base are building the air traffic control system for Iraq.
Master Sgt. Michael Bardsley and other Air Force air traffic controllers at Balad Air Base are building the air traffic control system for Iraq. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq — Air Force air traffic controllers have one unusual challenge when directing aircraft over Iraq: They have to keep civilian planes away from the combat areas.

“It’s never been done before,” said Master Sgt. Shane Downum, a controller with the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron at Balad.

Baghdad’s airport opened to civilian aircraft over the summer, along with other airports in Iraq. Yet the war continues.

“If we need to do a mission in that airspace, we’ll block off that airspace,” said Maj. T.J. Courtney, director of operations for the 332nd Expeditionary Air Control Squadron at Balad.

His squadron controls military aircraft and helps coordinate it in combat operations, helping support troops on the ground. If he has to block off airspace to prevent civilian aircraft from entering, he contacts the 332nd EOSS, which operates the radar approach control, called RAPCON in Air Force parlance.

“They can call up and say, ‘This airspace is hot,’” said Master Sgt. Michael Bardsley, chief controller.

When that happens, the controllers direct civilian aircraft away.

It happens almost daily.

“We have to constantly change the way we do things just to get aircraft in and out Baghdad,” Bardsley said.

Maj. Kevin Edenborough, director of operations for the 332nd EOSS, said “[The controllers] just make the airspace available so the air control squadron can do what they have to do.”

When combat aircraft are on the attack, they are controlled by the 332nd EACS. But when they return, they are in contact with the RAPCON, Edenborough said.

This is not the only challenge for the controllers, who operate from a small module in the center of the airfield. The controllers, more than 20 people from the U.S. and the Australian air forces, are responsible for every aircraft flying over central Iraq, from airliners and cargo planes to unmanned reconnaissance vehicles and fighters.

“We average a little over 12,000 operations a month,” Bardsley said. An operation is contact with one aircraft.

They relinquish responsibility for the aircraft only when it leaves the 36,000 square miles of airspace they control or it is within five miles of the airfield where it will land. Then, the plane is the control tower’s responsibility.

“It’s a huge challenge to de-conflict all the aircraft flying all the different altitudes and all the different speeds,” Edenborough said.

That includes, he said, the helicopters, which number in the hundreds around central Iraq on just about any day.

For Air Force controllers, talking to aircraft simply flying over the country is a new task. It’s called “in-route” when aircraft originate outside the country or leave the country.

“It’s on-the-job training over here,” Downum said.

Tech Sgt. Angela Lawhorne, a controller from Luke Air Force Base, said the pace can be “pretty crazy” at times.

“It’s a new adventure for all of us,” she said. “You walk away from here more knowledgeable. We definitely have a heavy mission on our shoulders.”

Edenborough said the controllers arrive with the ability to do the job, but that ability is enhanced by the mission’s tempo and variety.

“The people who leave the RAPCON will leave with skills nobody back home will have,” Edenborough said.

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