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235th Air Traffic Controllers keep the skies safe at home and abroad

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Patricia F. Moran
  • 145th Public Affairs
Every day, civilian and military aircraft take off and land at Stanly County Airport in New London, N.C. It is the job of North Carolina Air National Guard's, 235th Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) to monitor these aircraft in order to prevent accidents.

It takes a decisive, straightforward and confident person to handle the responsibilities of an Air Traffic Control Specialist. The position deserves all the grandeur it gets for its role in keeping everyone safe. It's not an occupation that everyone can handle. Air traffic controllers have one of the most stressful jobs in the Air Force. Being in charge of an airfield's takeoffs and landings can often involve making life or death decisions under extreme pressure. In these positions, there is no margin for error.

The mission of the 235th ATC team is twofold. First, these Airmen must be trained and ready to deploy within 72 hours to provide air traffic control support for any wartime contingency. ATCs direct the movement of aircraft into and out of military airfields all over the world and track aircraft by radar and voice instructions by radio. Not only is the 235th ATC squadron equipped with deployable personnel, but they possess the kind of tactical equipment needed to stand-up air traffic control operations at a bare base, austere landing environment. Within the Air Force, the bulk of the air traffic control missions fall to the Air National Guard.

Second, these Airmen are trained to provide air traffic control support for the Stanly County Airport.

The North Carolina Air National Guard's (NCANG), 235th ATC has a unique relationship with the Stanly County Airport that started when Stanly County commenced air traffic control operations November 20, 1998 using a small Mobile Control Tower with three controllers providing ATC services.

"The North Carolina Air National Guard is technically a tenant on the airport, but since their infrastructure started in 1988, Stanly County Airport has always considered them a partner in our operations," said Dennis Fritz, Air Traffic Control Manager for Stanly County Airport.

The 235th ATCs upgraded their facilities when they commissioned a new control tower in June of 2002. At that point six full time staffing positions were added to cover the increase in the tower's operations. Today the control tower is staffed with full time air traffic controllers, both military and civilians, who work for the Department of Defense. All provide the day-to-day air traffic services for the airport. 

Stanly County Airport Director, David Griffin, spoke of a chance encounter with a NCANG recruiter that led to discussions between the air guard and the airport authority.

"Those discussions led to the realization that the Air National Guard and the airport could each benefit substantially. With their participation, we have achieved airport capabilities that can only be found on major air carrier airports," said Griffin.

Master Sgt. Tony Parker, Tower Watch Supervisor for the 235th ATC enjoys the diversity that his position provides.

"It is a great feeling to be able to support the community and the military by providing a safe environment for all aircraft to refine their skills. Since 2003, when I joined the 235th ATC, I have seen many changes here at Stanly County Airport. For one thing, there's been a huge increase in Army units who use our drop zone for parachute operations training. We have also changed our tower operating hours so that we can support the community by having the tower operational on Saturdays for civilian pilots who fly in from all over the country, to conduct training for air shows. There are aerobatics aircraft organizations and pilots who train for air shows that can now use this airfield," said Parker.

Because of the support the 235th ATC provides, Pressley Aviation was able to open a flight school in September of 2012. Many of the local residents in Stanly County attend this flight school.

Roger Mabry is a local resident and a student pilot of Pressley Aviation.

"The Airmen that work in the tower are essential to our success," said Mabry. "They know us, they know our voices, our individual flying patterns and help us out in many ways. They work with us and help us with our training like making sure that our radio conversations are on target. You wouldn't get that support at a larger airport."

Senior Airman Justin Condon is an Air Traffic Controller who works full time at Stanly County Control Tower. He is responsible for separation and sequencing of all the aircraft that utilize the airport.

"Safety is the number one priority in this job and we take it very seriously. We work as a three man team to accomplish this by utilizing local control, flight data/ground control and the watch supervisor," Condon said.

The majority of SrA Condon's job is the passing of information to the people that need it, be it the pilots or other controllers, so that they can take action to avoid potentially life threatening situations.

Local control is in charge of the airspace and runways, whereas ground control is responsible for everyone moving on the taxiways, which includes aircraft and all vehicles such as lawn mowers, fire trucks and fuel trucks. The watch supervisor is a very experienced controller that is responsible for everything that goes on during their shift; they are responsible for the overall operation of the facility.

An additional duty for the ground controller is Flight Data, which includes flight progress notification and coordination between other facilities. At Stanly Tower, the ATC's have a direct line to both Charlotte International Airport and Greensboro, N.C. Approach Control.

"We are a "satellite" airport for Charlotte Approach and are positioned close to the edge of Greensboro's control area. Our own area of control is classified as "Class Delta," which means you have to have permission from the tower to enter the airspace. Our airspace includes surface to 3000 feet within a 5.8 nautical mile radius of Stanly County Airport. This may not seem like a lot of area but with our drop zone training, other military units training and commercial and civilian air traffic, we can get pretty busy here," Condon said.

As Mr. Mabry climbs into the pilot seat of his Cessna, he points to the tower and states, "They are the Air National Guard. Not only do they serve our state and our country, but having them here in Stanly County and supporting us year round is a great example of how they serve their community as well. We are very grateful for their service."