Spangdahlem Airman helps control skies over Iraq

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq -- The clutter of dots on the scope may seem like a mess to some, but at the helm is a group of specialized Airmen who work around the clock to keep aircraft intersecting the skies over Iraq safe and on course.

Air traffic controllers in the combined en route radar approach facility track all planes flying lower than 24,000 feet that enter and exit the lower two thirds of Iraq.

Chief Master Sgt. Rodger Miller, 332nd Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron chief controller, said their job is to keep military and civilian aircraft, airliners, commercial air carriers and cargo planes separated so they get safely to their destination.

"There is a lot of aircraft traffic in Iraq, and if you look at our scope, it's like a bee hive on there," the Hinsdale, N.H., native said. "If somebody was not looking out for that, safety would be jeopardized."

In December 2010, CERAP members handled 17,500 aircraft, an average of 580 planes a day.

Most facilities at home station are responsible for one airport and 20-40 miles of airspace, but CERAP controllers here direct aircraft movement into nine different airports. This requires three approach sectors; Ali to the south, Baghdad in the center and Balad to the north. All three sectors are located in one facility, which is unique to Iraq.

"This would require three different buildings and complexes back home, and here we do it all in one building," Chief Miller, who is deployed from Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, said. "One staff sergeant can supervise the 10-12 people working those airports."

As U.S. Forces continue to transition out of Iraq, CERAP members are doing their part to help Iraqi air traffic controllers.

"We are teaching and assisting the Iraqis to keep their sovereignty. Until they can do so on their own, we have to watch the airspace and patrol the skies for them," Chief Miller said. "They are trying really hard to stand conventional air traffic control back up in their country."

According to the chief, the Iraqis are working with a Canadian company to teach and certify their ATCs in controlling airplanes, and CERAP members are helping them with handoffs.

"We take their airplanes that are coming down and give them planes ascending past 24,000 feet," Chief Miller said. "It's a slow process to get them trained up, but they are doing a wonderful job."

While English is the spoken language for air traffic controllers worldwide, Staff Sgt. Steven Ott, 332nd EOSS air traffic control journeymen deployed from Spangdalem Air Base, Germany, said the language barrier and cultural differences can be challenging.

"As long as you speak clearly, they can understand you, but not so much the other way around because they pick up our slang and try to use it," the Poulsbo, Wash., native said. "Their interpretation of our language can be different at times."

With a multitude of aircraft crisscrossing the skies of Iraq, ensuring planes are separated and on course can be demanding work but also rewarding for these CERAP air traffic controllers.

"We get a real sense of accomplishment at the end of the day because what we do affects the lives of others," Sergeant Ott said.