FORT HOOD, Texas — Watching a plane or helicopter over the skies of Central Texas may seem almost effortless to the untrained eye. However, most people don’t know about the intense coordination that air traffic controllers here do to orchestrate that dance in the sky.
As the air traffic control chief for Fort Hood’s Directorate of Aviation Operations, Mark Vick is responsible for many airspaces. Robert Gray Army Airfield is a part of the National Airspace System and holds responsibility for a 60-mile radius, from the ground to 12,000 feet. Inside that area is a mix of military, restricted and presidential airspace, along with 12 military and civilian airfields. As Vick explained, it’s part of their job as approach control to ensure all aircraft flying over Central Texas do so safely and efficiently.
“Fort Hood is a little bit unique. We’re split by the two centers. So, you got Fort Worth and Houston Center, and then we touch Waco Approach Control, Intercontinental Approach Control, and Austin Approach Control,” Vick said. “Fort Hood is kind of unique where we sit in Central Texas for a military approach control. We’re on pace to run over 400,000 movements this year just out of the radar facility and 125,000 to 130,000 from the tower.”
Vick said the best way to describe the mission is to take a three-tiered wedding cake and turn it upside down. The small portion is the tower, roughly the surface to 3,500 feet and about five miles around the airport. The air traffic controllers talk to pilots on the ground and talk to the planes landing and taking off. Approach control is the middle part of the cake, and that’s from the surface to 12,000 feet and about a 60-mile radius around the airport. Then there are centers for air traffic control, the top part of the cake, that sits above the approach. Their job is to watch and talk with planes across entire states.
“You take off from the airport, you’re talking to the tower. That person works you up and hands you off to the approach control facility, normally,” Vick continued. “And then the approach control facility, where you get higher, hands you off to the center, you fly across the country to wherever you’re going, and then you come back down through the center to the approach control back down to the tower to land, to the terminal.”
Fort Hood air traffic controllers are required to undergo extensive training to meet Federal Aviation Administration standards. The average training time for a Fort Hood air traffic controller is around 19 months. During this time, trainees are required to learn FAA and Army air traffic regulations, study air approach maps and spend countless hours with an Air Traffic Control trainer. This process ensures that all controllers are knowledgeable and skilled in safely directing aircraft.
Tyler Bua is one of the newest air traffic controllers at RGAAF. Bua, a former U.S. Army enlisted ATC Operator, said he has always wanted to do something in aviation.
He joined the Army to make his dream a reality. Bua said that his experience in the Army has been invaluable in preparing him for his new career. He feels that the discipline and knowledge he gained while serving have helped him to be successful in his new role. Bua is excited to be able to use his skills to help keep aircraft safe and prevent accidents.
“I always kind of had a calling to join the Army, but I wanted to join the Army and choose a profession that offers something afterwards. So, I always kind of had my eye on the future. Especially when I joined the Army, and I wanted to do something with aviation,” Bua said. “It’s definitely been an expansion of my skills. I mean, there’s people here (that) you train with and a variety of different controllers that have, you know, a multitude of backgrounds and experience that they bring to the facility.”
RGAAF is the one of the only air traffic facilities authorized by the FAA to operate Unmanned Aircraft Systems and manned commercial aircraft. The facility is computer-interfaced with air traffic control centers from Fort Worth and Houston. Vick and his staff of controllers keep RGAAF open around-the-clock all year long keeping watch on Central Texas’ skies.