NAS Pensacola Air Traffic Controllers Keep Skies Safe Above ‘Cradle of Naval Aviation’
PENSACOLA, Fla. At any given moment during peak air travel times, there are an estimated 5,000 aircraft in U.S. airspace approximately 44,000 flights operating daily, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Although much of that traffic is centered around metropolitan areas, the air traffic above Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola remains significant, with more than 60,000 aircraft operations each year at the Cradle of Naval Aviation.’
Directing that traffic in the skies above NAS Pensacola a responsibility involving millions of dollars and countless human lives has been entrusted to Sailors for more than 80 years. These service members, each of whom have successfully completed courses at Naval Air Technical Training Center’s (NATTC) Air Traffic Control (ATC) schoolhouse and are part of the U.S. Navy’s Air Traffic Control (AC) rate, are responsible for safely and effectively directing aircraft operating from and to Forrest Sherman Field onboard NAS Pensacola.
“It is a fulfilling job where you consistently surprise yourself by applying the knowledge you gained from countless hours of studying and continuous training,” said Air Traffic Controller 2nd Class Aaron Maddox.
Sherman Tower, named for former chief of naval operations (CNO) and naval aviator Adm. Forrest Sherman, houses the NAS Pensacola Air Operations Department’s Air Traffic Control division. Here, the air traffic controllers work in two teams standing 8-hour watches up to seven times each week. These Sailors control the movement of aircraft and vehicles on airfield taxiways and runways, issue flight instructions to pilots by radio communication systems and light signals, and direct all aircraft airborne operations under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and Instrument Flight Rules (IFR).
Air Traffic Controllers additionally operate surveillance radar, precision radar, data link approach systems, Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) equipment and other air traffic control equipment. They also maintain current flight planning information and reference material and assist pilots in preparation and processing flight plans, all of which AC1 Chad Bradley said is critical to the continued safe operation of aircraft at one of the busiest air traffic control centers in the southeastern United States.
“This job requires attention to details during every moment you are controlling traffic,” Bradley said. “Complacency is not an option. There are lives at stake. Air traffic controllers save lives every day.”
With the sheer number of training flights originating onboard NAS Pensacola, ACs ensure the safe flow of NAS Pensacola air traffic, directly supporting training missions for naval aviation students from Training Air Wing 6 (TRAWNG-6); TRAWNG 5; the U.S. Air Force’s 479th Flying Training Group; the Naval Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels; and other area training commands. Additionally, these Sailors support exercises for U.S. Armed Forces in the Gulf of Mexico as well as support for ship testing and certifications for all pre-commissioning ships from the Pascagoula shipyard.
“The job is rewarding in so many aspects. Not only do we gain immediate job satisfaction at the end of each launch and recovery, we also get to see the successes of our own peers and young Sailors,” said Air Traffic Controller 1st Class Aaron Kelly. “There’s nothing more rewarding than knowing that you have helped someone a pilot or a controller accomplish their mission, improve their careers or even their lives.”
Directing that traffic, sometimes through less than ideal conditions or during an emergent situation, is something AC2 Matthew Wiedenhoeft said is what makes this particular assignment personally fulfilling.
“It’s all about the rewarding moments, like when a pilot declares an emergency while flying in a thunderstorm and they thank you for saving their life when you get them safely on the ground,” he said. “I have not experienced a better feeling than that feeling that I am part of something big, that I’m accomplishing something of great importance.”
For more than a century NAS Pensacola, referred to as the “Cradle of Naval Aviation,” has supported operational and training missions of tenant commands, including Naval Air Technical Training Center (NATTC); Naval Aviation Schools Command (NASC); the Center for Naval Aviation Technical Training (CNATT); Marine Aviation Training Support Groups (MATSG) 21 and 23; and Naval Education and Training Command (NETC).