With very limited exceptions, Naval Air Station Oceana, the Navy’s East Coast master jet base, is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. To support more than 175,000 yearly safe flight operations of F/A-18 Super Hornets and other aircraft, Naval Air Station Oceana always keeps its eyes in the sky.
Over 70 air traffic controllers call Naval Air Station Oceana home, each one responsible for maintaining safe air traffic patterns of aircraft flying thousands of feet above the control tower and radar rooms in which they work.
“We essentially direct traffic, but our traffic is in the sky,” said Air Traffic Controlman 3rd Class Melanie Amweg, from Omaha, Nebraska, now assigned to Naval Air Station Oceana as an air traffic controller. “We’re the ones telling the pilots where to go so they’re able to maintain a safe distance from other aircraft.”
Being able to direct air traffic takes plenty of ongoing training, well beyond a Sailor’s initial five months of “A” school training.
Air Traffic Controlman 2nd Class Andrea Coffey, from Norfolk, Virginia, now assigned to Naval Air Station Oceana as an air traffic controller, said to keep up with Navy and Federal Aviation Administration regulations, air traffic controllers constantly have to learn and train.
“Air traffic control is a cool job because it doesn’t matter where you go or how long you’ve been in; whenever you go to a new command, you start at the bottom and retrain at every ‘position’ every time,” said Coffey, referring to the 12 “positions” that determine Sailors’ daily jobs based on their qualifications.
Keeping up with qualifications and training allows air traffic controllers to maintain peak mental sharpness and the ability to deal with any situation that comes their way.
“The most difficult part of our job is being able to adapt to any situation thrown at you,” said Amweg. “We don’t know what is going to happen every day, but we have the tools available to handle anything we’re faced with.”
Knowing how to direct an aircraft experiencing an in-flight emergency or keep composure during a period of heavy flight traffic is what sets air traffic controllers apart from everyone else.
“You’re never going to have two days that are the same,” said Coffey. “I like the challenge, especially when I have to think fast to manage a situation. Within seconds, something could happen. You have to think quickly, and it’s very rewarding when everything goes smoothly.”
Amweg said air traffic controllers are just as important as pilots when it comes to maintaining safety in the sky.
“Pilots are the ones operating the aircraft, and air traffic controllers are the one’s making sure the pilot and everyone else in the aircraft is safe,” said Amweg. “To have a safe flight, you need to have a top-notch pilot and a top-notch controller. We’re the ones working behind the scenes to get everyone home safe.”