Las Vegas Sun

October 20, 2017

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Nellis airmen controlling busy skies over Iraq

Two Nellis Air Force Base air traffic control specialists won't be at their home base to provide any assistance to Santa Claus in the skies over Southern Nevada this weekend

Perhaps though, they'll catch a glimpse of the old boy and his toy transport somewhere over Iraq during the mid-eastern track of Santa's annual Christmas Eve mission.

Master Sgt. Fred Erolin and Staff Sgt. David Hough are deployed to Balad Air Base Iraq, about 43 miles north of Baghdad. Erolin, a 19-year Air Force veteran and the chief controller for the Nellis air traffic control tower, is serving in that same capacity at Balad. Hough, a five-year veteran serving his first assignment at Nellis, is operating the Radar Approach Control facility at the Iraq base.

Each say that, Santa aside, the variety of air traffic they deal with Balad is an interesting challenge compared with the day-to-day fighter training departures and arrivals they are used to at Nellis but, according the Erolin, the work and training received at Nellis "certainly prepares one to operate in a combat environment."

"Balad AB/LSA Anaconda is the supply hub in Iraq, so our 'ops tempo' is very high. We control aircraft with speeds that range from 80 mph to 1200 mph at ground speed," noted the sergeant in an e-mail.

"We mix piloted fixed-wing and rotor wing-winged aircraft with unmanned aerial vehicles, heavy transport jets, and reconnaissance aircraft that fly low and fast.'

Erolin gives some credit to Nellis Red Flag combat exercises for his ability to take the Balad experience in stride. Noting that Red Flags can involve up to 110 aircraft, he said, "The sheer volume of an RF exercise combined with the speed at which RF jets approach the runway, could overwhelm a novice controller. Having been exposed to that environment, I came to Balad with that many more tools in my toolbox."

But, he adds, "At Nellis we had the luxury of friendly 'real estate.' At Balad, our aircraft can potentially take hostile fire as they land or take off (over enemy threat zones) and 'go tactical' ... from virtually any direction ... some very low and fast ... some very high."

That fact and the constant helicopter and civil aircraft cargo operations ongoing makes the Balad ATC mission an "... awesome experience," Erolin said.

Maj. Rudy Ridenbaugh, who recently returned to Nellis after serving as commander of the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron at Balad, has another perspective on Erolin's awesome experience.

"As an operator and commander, the professionalism and flexibility of the air traffic controllers (at Balad) was impressive. These folks were exposed to the constant and very real danger presented from mortar and rocket attacks from insurgents while at their duty stations in the tower and the control facility.

"They have the unenviable task of coordinating the flow of both rotor and fixed wing aircraft, military and civilian, in and out of the busiest airport in either AOR. They had to safely put together aircraft flying speeds from 40 knots up to 400 knots ranging in size from a few hundred pounds to hundreds of thousands of pounds --- all wanting to use the same piece of very valuable concrete and all believing that theirs was the most important mission to the war effort.

"The air traffic control service members are heroes in the background," said Ridenbaugh, chief of current operations for Nellis's 57th Operational Support Squadron.

While the wartime mission is keeping Erolin and Hough pretty busy, they do have some time to reflect on the holiday season.

"We have a big Christmas tree with lights set up in the middle of our living quarters," Hough said. "They handed out stockings filled with essentials like toothpaste, shampoo, pens and calling cards."

Asked for holiday sentiments for those back home, Hough sent seasons greetings to his wife, Michelle, his friends and co-workers at the Nellis Air Traffic Control facility and members of El Camino Baptist Church.

"I am behind the president 100 percent to put a stop to terrorists," Hough said. "Coming to Iraq has showed the world that it is possible. I have talked to many local nationals and they love us. We are making this country a better place. I believe if we have the power to make a difference, then it is our duty to help."

When asked the same question, Erolin joked, "What's a holiday? I'm not even sure what season of the year we're in," then added that "being away from families and friends over the holidays is something we lament, but the morale here is high... people are so awesome. We understand the mission comes first.

"I want to personally thank everyone back home for their support. It is not lip service we are getting from various communities, it's real support demonstrated by care packages and letters of encouragement. They certainly leave no doubt in our minds of the level of support our fellow Americans are giving us. From the bottom of my heart I thank you."

Hough says he believes Santa has a transponder on his sleigh, so "if he comes within a couple hundred miles of Iraq we will be able to pick him up on radar."

Erolin added, "We have the best vantage point with a panoramic view in the tower, so we can see him coming from miles away. And, Santa has been coming every day. We are swimming in care packages. Thank you very much."