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Tactical Air Command and Control
A Cose Call
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Like contestants on a survival-based reality television show, the airmen ensured they had everything they would need to sustain operations for at least three days. A complete inventory from “beans to bullets” was accounted for before being loaded into each configured Humvee. They were ready to deploy.

Airmen like Senior Airman Courtney Hinson, a terminal attack controller, are entrusted with an MRC-144 weapons system — a half-million dollars in communications equipment housed within a Humvee. As part of the 18th Air Support Operations Group, supporting 18th Airborne Corps, Hinson and his comrades are responsible for keeping their systems and the mission running. And testing frequencies is part of knowing the system.

“We can talk to anyone in the world from that equipment,” Hinson said. “From Pope, I’ve talked to the base operator at Thule, Greenland, using a high frequency.”

It’s those frequencies that help tactical air controllers get aircraft to the fight. The controllers coordinate airspace and call in air strikes as advisers to Army ground commanders on what air power can bring to the fight.

“We’re aligned with the Army, not attached. We’re with them every day so there’s a good rapport, and trust is built up,” said Master Sgt. Hal Sullivan, 22nd Air Support Squadron flight superintendent at Pope Air Force Base, N.C.

Senior Airman Nathan Brown (left) calls in coordinates from his PRC-117F satellite communication system, while Staff Sgt. Michael Grilli surveys the area. Teams like these train in navigation proficiency at Fort Bragg’s field training area, in North Carolina, to ensure they’re experts in talking to pilots on high and ultrahigh frequencies. Official Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung

Both tactical air controllers and soldiers wear black berets, so sometimes it’s difficult to tell there are airmen on the battlefield. And they work with the Army so much that many of them are more familiar with Army culture than their bluesuit roots.

“I couldn’t tell you how many people are in a squadron or flight,” said Tech. Sgt. Trevor Sok, a terminal attack controller. “But I could tell you how many people are in a battalion. You have to speak Army. When you speak the lingo and wear Army patches, you’re a part of the ‘green’ Air Force.”

In fact, with 16 years of being an airman, Pope Air Force Base, N.C., was the first base he’s been stationed at — the rest have all been Army posts. It’s more the rule than an exception in this career field.

And most of the time, these controllers are the only enlisted people surrounded by officers in tactical operation center meetings. But that doesn’t seem to bother them. They’re handpicked and carefully screened for the career field, and they enjoy the empowerment of the job.

“I have staff sergeants representing the Air Force to special forces group commanders,” Sullivan said.

A testament to abilities

With technical sergeants making decisions a lieutenant colonel could be making, Sullivan said it’s a testament to their abilities and the training they receive.

“These guys are squared away. I don’t have to look over their shoulders — they make their own decisions,” he said. “They’re aggressive and can make quick decisions on their feet. They are doing what they do because they want to, not because they have to.”

It’s a job that most of these men, it seems, have indirectly trained for most of their lives. As a child, Hinson enjoyed the outdoors and played GI Joe, so the front-line excitement and challenge of doing this job, in the heat of battle, was just his speed.

With recreational hobbies like camping, hunting and fishing, the rustic lifestyle of Army field training is something most of these outdoorsmen actually look forward to.

“I enjoy getting out of the office to play in the field with the Army,” said Senior Airman Charles Hathaway, a terminal attack controller.

Admittedly, day-to-day operations within the unit can be dull. But 12-mile road marches once a week and daily physical training keeps them moving and conditioned for exposure to any environment.

“If I’m in trouble, my buddy is going to do everything he can to take make sure I get back,” Hinson said. “We’ve got the best training in the world and get to do stuff that Hollywood portrays on TV.”

Practice with purpose

The need to constantly practice technical skills, in an exercise environment, gets them focused on what could happen when in the field.

Putting on the paint is part of the process when it comes to tactical air controller training. Grilli uses a Humvee mirror to make sure his face is covered with camouflage makeup. Concealing themselves in hostile environments like Afghanistan can be as important as the calls they make. Official Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung

“We have to be experts on aircraft capabilities and weapons effects to protect the friendlies on the ground and destroy the target,” Sullivan said.

But these guys want to be where the action is, at the leading edge of the fight. Three to five Humvees are at any given theater location to support strategic positioning and ensure backup systems are ready. Long-range surveillance teams, or scout teams, get visual identification of the target and make recommendations. It’s what they train to do.

“With air power, we can put bombs on a target any place in the world at a moment’s notice,” Sok said. “All it takes is someone on a radio calling and telling them the target location.”

And other airmen doing the same job agree. They can be as close to the target as 165 yards, so, many times, they’re watching target destruction.

“There’s nothing like exiting an aircraft, and then, when you get on the ground, watching a 2,000-pound bomb disintegrate a target. That blast takes your breath away,” Hinson said. “You know that you’re the superior world force.”

It’s an excitement that’s shared throughout the career field with airmen like Staff Sgt. Shannon Cruz, another terminal attack controller. He never gets tired of seeing the aircraft come in and take care of business. The highlight of his career was when he was deployed to Kuwait. He controlled 80 close air support sorties in 45 days.

Grilli (left) calls in coordinates from an MRC-144 while Brown drives the Humvee. The half-million dollar MRC-144 is housed in the back of the vehicle and is considered a weapons system. Official Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung

And with close air support a necessity in hot spots like Afghanistan, it’s reassuring to know these guys are experts and close by, even though their families wish they were home. With an average deployment rate of 120 days on temporary duty, the mission takes a toll on home life, and the pace isn’t likely to improve for some time.

“In light of the current world situation, they’re in high demand, and there aren’t enough of them to do what needs to be done,” Sullivan said.

Despite increased requirements, an unexpected outcome has emerged as a result of this war on terrorism.

“Operation Enduring Freedom brought to light the importance of special operations,” he said.

Veterans like Sok believe the events have renewed confidence in the Air Force and what tactical air control parties can contribute to the fight.

“We’re proving more and more our value and that we’re capable of doing the job,” Cruz said.

Above Article by 1st Lt. Carie A. Seydel, Published in Airman's Magazine


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