By Will RavensteinJanuary 10, 2019
The civilian air traffic controllers at Marshall Army Airfield are on-site to ensure the Soldiers of the 'Big Red One' get the training they need to complete their mission without interfering with the normal flow of traffic in the national airspace system.
"The role that we play enables what happens outside the restricted area to go," said George Mummert air traffic control chief, Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security. "So that Mr. and Mrs. Smith from Manhattan, Kansas, that are going to get on American Eagle flight 5893 to Dallas. They get on their flight and leave -- they don't know anything. They continue to do what they do (in Manhattan) those planes continue to take off and land."
The controllers and radar operators monitor what happens away from Fort Riley, though their main tasking is controlling what happens in the restricted airspace over the installation when active.
"What our presence really allows to happen, is the stuff inside the restricted area can go on without impacting what is outside of it," Mummert said. "If you remove us from the equation, there would be no servicing instrument flight rules agency here. It would be Kansas City [air operations] air traffic control center. Fort Riley represents a tiny spec on their area of operations. What they are responsible for in magnitude is so much bigger than Fort Riley."
"They don't have the time, manning, resources or training to focus in on one little thing," he said. "They could not sit and just baby sit (Fort Riley). If you look at what the restricted airspace looks like when you are looking at the controller at Kansas City Center radar scope, it's about the size of a pea. He is looking at talking to 50, 60 airplanes in the flight levels from 25,000 to 40,000 feet. That's where his attention needs to be."
One of the main tasks the controllers also do is provide overwatch of the airspace so aircraft that are not supposed to be there, don't wander in while allowing the commanders on the ground to get realistic training.
"We also provide the airspace deconfliction," Mummert said. "When you are in a major exercise like this, you have artillery rounds going up and you have an [unmanned aircraft system] up there or you have Apache gunship support up there. We serve as the deconfliction piece to ensure the ground commander has what he needs to execute the mission and what the aviation assets do don't get intertwined. We don't get in the middle of the command and control of the exercise, we just provide the over watch and the procedural safety net to make sure the ground and the air never become one."
There is a lot of pride in what the controllers do, said air traffic control tower chief Terry Hogan.
"I think if you ask any air traffic controller anywhere, there is a lot of pride in having the ability and the training to be able to do what we do," he said. "Then you put on top of that we are providing the oversight to allow them to be able to train and go over there in support of the nation. We are not just watching one airport, we are making sure these guys can train. There is a lot of pride in that."
Mummert seconded the feeling of pride for what they can do on a tactical level.
"I like to know that when there is a ground unit commander that wants to go out and execute a mission," he said. "If he goes out and he wants to do a maneuver on the ground and he is sitting there doing his battle planning, there are a lot of resources that he can reach out and tap into to make that battle plan. When one of them is the UAS that he wants to use. If he needs air support of any kind, Apaches or the UAS, I want him to be able to realistically plan that mission like he would in a theater of operations overseas where he is actually going out to engage the enemy. I want him to get the most realistic training that he can here."
When the brigade commanders go out into the field and they use the UAS's they also control the airspace, Hogan said. This allows them to plan, train and use the equipment the way they would in a theater of operations.
"One thing that we do here, we allow them to go out there and take over the airspace just like they are going to at NTC," he said. "He can call in this aircraft to do this or call in this UAS … we are making sure no one is in this area."
Mummert said they not only keep an eye out for outside interference, they also make sure the aircraft in the restricted airspace, stay inside.
"It's not as simple as just looking out," Mummert said. "You are dropping a stone in a pond, there are ripple effects. What we do is we make sure that when they do something, those ripples stop at the edge of the restricted area. That's the critical thing we are there to provide, to make them aware they (are) approaching the boundaries of the restricted area. When we control an airplane in the national air space, we tell them to turn this heading, turn left, turn right … With them we are not. We just say, 'Hey you're approaching the boundary limits. I recommend you turn immediately.'"
Most pilots acknowledge this and continue to the edge of the boundary and move to their starting point or on to their mission, Mummert said.
On the minds of the controllers is also the airspace closest to Fort Riley's neighboring communities.
"We've worked for a long time to maintain a good regional partnership with the communities," Mummer said. "We are very sensitive to noise in Milford. The pilots that follow highway 77 stay at the appropriate altitude to reduce the impact on them. We also do maintain good relationships with the Sheriff's [Office], Lifestar, the Kansas Highway Patrol."
At the end of the day or training exercise, the best thing that can happen for Mummert is the brigade commanders don't know what they do, he said.
"We like to do what we do and we do take a lot of pride in it," he said. "Probably the biggest thank you we can ever get is that nobody knows what we do. That's the best thing in the world. A brigade commander goes out there, he takes his brigade and does all the stuff that he wants to do and he has no idea of what we are doing. That is complimentary to us because that's what we want. We don't want him to give a single thought of what we do to do our job because that's our job. He can just go and do his thing, he knows we are here. Like a system on a computer, we are going to run in the background to make sure you can do everything you want to do."