CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE SPEICHER, Iraq - The airfield at Contingency Operating Base Speicher is one of the busiest in the Army, facilitating an average of 800 takeoffs and landings each day.
It is the air traffic controllers of Fox Company, 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade who direct that air traffic, de-conflicting airspace and keeping the skies over and around COB Speicher safe - an awesome feat, considering that when the unit first took over control tower operations in October, pilots considered this airfield to be one of the most dangerous in theater.
Sgt. 1st Class William Apke, senior air-traffic control noncommissioned officer, attributed the danger of flying in and around COB Speicher to two things: the complexity of the airfield, and the limited space "owned" by tower operators when they first arrived - just 3000 feet up and five miles out.
"This is one of the most complex fields the Army controls, either overseas or back home in the United States," Apke said. "We deal with a traffic density that's busier than just about any other Army tower."
Apke explained that when Fox Company first arrived here, they expected to assume standard control tower operations, which consisted of a team in the tower visually controlling arrivals and departures to the airfield, with a second team monitoring the radar system. Their radar, the Air Traffic Navigation Integration Control System (ATNAVICS), was to be used exclusively for recovering aircraft who encountered bad weather, losing visual flight conditions and needing help getting back to, and landing at, the airfield.
But, Apke said, the tower controllers soon found themselves overwhelmed with the amount of traffic they had to keep up with.
"The tower operator upstairs was dealing with four different Unmanned Aerial Vehicle platforms taking off from four different surfaces, mixed in with rotary wing aircraft, commercial air carriers with foreign pilots, and military fixed-wing aircraft," Apke explained. "We have two runways, with 11 rotary-wing landing surfaces spread out on both sides of both runways. We have an aerial gunnery range, a balloon restricted-operating zone, and a test-fire range in the traffic pattern."
In addition to monitoring of all of that, Apke said, the local controller also had to keep track of "active airspace" - UAVs and fixed-wing aircraft loitering over certain areas within the approach and departure corridors.
"The local controller upstairs was oversaturated," Apke said.
Also an issue was the "dead" space between the tower and the next adjacent facilities at Kirkuk and Balad, who physically owned the airspace around COB Speicher.
"When the aircraft departed, they couldn't get immediate radio contact with Kirkuk," Apke explained, "so they were essentially flying blind from the time they left here until they could pick up Kirkuk. It created unsafe conditions."
Apke said the Air Force had filed several hazardous air traffic reports (HATRs) identifying dangers to air traffic in the skies around COB Speicher.
"[The incidences] would happen 10 or 20 miles away from the airfield, and we didn't own that airspace, but they were occurring with aircraft entering and leaving our airfield so those reports were filed against us," he said.
Making it even more frustrating was the fact that, although the ATNAVICS team could monitor everything within a 25 mile radius on their radar system, they were not legally allowed to control that airspace since they did not own it.
So the Fox Company leadership came up with a plan to expand their tower services from a "control tower operations" facility to a "radar approach control" facility, which would allow the tower controller to keep command of his local airspace, but give additional control of the airspace 10,000 feet up and 25 miles out to the ATNAVICS team.
"We have pushed for this very hard - recognizing the hazards that were here, recognizing the capabilities of our equipment and the capabilities of our controllers to do much more than we were previously doing, and thus affect the overall safety of this field," Apke explained. "After some of the hazard reports that we reviewed, some C-17 pilots came here specifically to talk to us about what was going on. They told us that amongst their community, this was the most dangerous airfield to fly into in theater. That just reaffirmed everything we thought before - this isn't working, and eventually something is going to happen that is worse than just a hazard. From that point on, we said 'hey, we're going to start providing these services.'"
In addition to requiring massive coordination with Kirkuk and Balad, the expansion also meant beefing up the tower facilities here at COB Speicher and extensive training for the Fox Company ATNAVICS operators.
"To become an approach control facility, we had to train procedures that Army radar controllers are not generally trained to do," Apke said. "In theory, they've had the schooling in [advanced individual training]; but in reality, we train for intermittent meteorological conditions recovery, and that's about it. Now we're providing a whole set of services that our controllers weren't familiar with.
"Also with that, now that we're saying we're going to provide all these services, we're responsible for maintaining separation whether our radar is working or not," Apke said. "So we had to develop and train procedures that give our guys the knowledge base to procedurally separate aircraft in non-radar circumstances."
In short, Apke said, "We got real smart, real quick."
But all that training has paid off - now the radar control team has a larger role in directing incoming and outgoing air traffic, taking a "huge load" off the tower controller upstairs.
"Now, we have two separate facilities, and two separate work crews," Apke said.
"The radar team will contact incoming aircraft 25 miles out, then start sequencing them into a pattern; so, at 10 miles out, that aircraft that's coming in already knows where he's going to enter the pattern, knows if there's going to be one or two guys landing before him," Apke explained. "When the local controller establishes communications with the pilot, he just reaffirms everything the radar has already established.
"Once an aircraft takes off, the tower transfers them to radar control so he can focus on his local traffic pattern," Apke continued, "and now it's a seamless transition to Balad or Kirkuk, so everyone remains in positive control."
The new system is working. In the two months since Fox Company has expanded their services, the airfield at COB Speicher has had zero HATRs. In addition, Apke said, the same pilots who complained about the dangers of flying into Speicher now have "no qualms about flying in here."
Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Dvorsky, 3-10 GSAB senior enlisted advisor, said Fox Company's initiative to expand their services and take on greater responsibility came as no surprise.
"Soon after arriving here, we discussed with our leaders the need to continue to improve our areas of operation for the next unit to fall into," Dvorsky said. "Short of replacing the tower itself, Fox Company has done an excellent job fixing the airspace around it."
Apke said the expansion of tower operations falls under their unit motto of "Safe, Orderly and Expeditious."
"Our primary concern is safety - keep the aircraft separated and not have them fly into each other - and then make it as expeditious as possible," he explained. "Well, we've made our airfield much safer."
Dvorsky attributes the success of the operation to the Soldiers, Noncommissioned Officers and leaders of Fox Company, who contribute to the safety of all 10th CAB pilots, passengers and airframes 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"I call them my '40-pound brains,'" Dvorsky said. "In their job, attention to detail is a requirement - if not, we would lose lives. Instead, they pretty much save lives on a daily basis."