LAUGHLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
Somewhere along the U.S. -Mexico border, just outside of a small Texas border town, Laughlin Air Force Base prides itself with producing the world’s best military pilots in the nation.
Helping those pilots navigate about 10,000 square miles of Texas skies, Laughlin’s air traffic control tower members help build the future of airpower and produces some of the best air traffic controllers in the Air Force as well.
“These are some of the sharpest troops I’ve ever seen,” said Master Sgt. John Armstrong, 47th Operations Support Squadron air traffic chief tower controller. “I’ve been in for nearly 16 years, and all around the Air Force, and I was immediately impressed with these controllers. I could tell that they were different.”
With 63,000 takeoffs, landings and approaches in 2016, Laughlin’s air traffic control (ATC) tower is the eighth busiest tower in the Air Force, and controllers in training have to learn quickly how to provide that support.
“It’s very stressful, [but] our trainers are the best,” Armstrong said. “They put in a lot of time and effort into getting each individual qualified, whether they’re a prior five-level, prior seven-level coming from another base, or a three-level coming in [from technical training]. They take it very seriously.”
At any given time during operations in the tower, there is a minimum of one watch supervisor, and three qualified controllers accompanied by ATC trainees.
“We can operate up in the tower with four controllers, but there’s always training going on, so a lot of times there can be eight people up there at one time,” Armstrong said. “Each one of them is very important for flight safety.”
Flight data is responsible for coordination with both of Laughlin’s runway supervisory units, the radar approach controllers and airfield management. Flight data is also responsible for notifying the hospital, fire department and airfield management of an inbound emergency aircraft.
Ground control is responsible for all aircraft, vehicles and personnel on the airfield. The controller guides departing aircraft and coordinates safe ground movement amongst ground personnel. Ground control also ensures that all emergency response vehicles reach in-flight and ground emergencies without delay, which happens about three times a week on average.
For some controllers, local control is the most complex position with the longest training time. Local controllers are responsible for controlling and communicating with all airborne aircraft, to include arriving and departing aircraft and aircraft practicing in the two flight patterns established at Laughlin.
“Being here at Laughlin [helps] me keep a fast pace, and stay on my toes,” said Airman 1st Class Anderson McDuffee, 47th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control journeyman. “You have to work hard [and], you have to have a good work ethic.”
After a relatively short seven months of training, McDuffee is now certified in each tower position, and he said he’s got a great team to thank.
“Without them, I couldn’t have done it as fast as I did,” said McDuffee. “I’ve had a bunch of really good people here to help me out.”
The saying “iron sharpens iron” comes to life, as pilot in training sharpens controller, and vice versa -- while pilots graduating from Laughlin leave with a new set of silver wings, there are air traffic controllers leaving with their own duty badges that they earned as well.