Monday, July 20, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Staff Sgt. Steven Williams is a local air traffic controller at Nellis Air Force Base, which means he is in charge of the busiest bit of airspace at one of the service’s three busiest bases, airspace that is crowded with an unusual variety of planes and pilots.
Practically, this means he’s keeping track of an especially detailed version of The Picture. (You can hear the capital letters when he talks about it.)
The Picture, for Williams, is the different positions and speeds of all the aircraft within a 5-mile radius of the control tower. When The Picture is busy, it’s filled with 20 to 25 planes. Williams’ job is not only to keep the planes out of one another’s way, but also to get them all off of or onto the ground without incident. For instance, Williams must remember that if an F-15 lands, it has to make it at least 6,000 feet down the runway before he can let the F-16 behind it land.
Think of it this way: You are cooking an especially large meal, say a Thanksgiving dinner, with a turkey and seven dishes. While preparing this dinner, you have to know where every dish is in its cooking process, the total amount of time it takes to cook and various complications. So the turkey will take the longest and it has to go in first, the potatoes need to be washed and peeled but before you can do that you have to take the defrosting stock out of the sink and put it into the pot, etc., etc.
Now imagine that every dish is full of aviation fuel, moving at several hundred miles per hour and speaking to you in a variety of accents.
Basically, Williams says, it’s a great job. Exciting.
He first realized this during his training.
“They just start throwing aircraft at you and that’s when you realize it’s a lot of fun,” Williams says. On the simulator, it’s like a video game. And in real life, with thousands of pounds and millions of dollars of aircraft at stake, not to mention the pilots, all of it increasing the pressure, well, that’s even more fun.
During the Red Flag air-to-air combat exercises and the Green Flag air-to-ground exercises, the pilots Williams handles come from different services and different nations, with different jargon and accents. Sometimes it takes awhile to sort out, but it’s not too bad.
“The Navy guys speak pretty good English, most of the time,” Williams says.
The tricky part of the job is to put himself in the pilot’s seat and imagine what he can see and what he needs to see to stay safe.
Does it ever stress Williams out?
Well, maybe a little, he admits.
“Every now and then, you’ll worry — ‘Am I getting behind? Am I getting behind?’ — but you’ve got everybody else up there watching your back and they should have The Picture, too.”
And how does he handle the pressure? The need to be constantly alert to The Picture?
Well, Williams allows, he used to drink a lot of coffee. Lately, though, he’s been staying away from caffeine.
“Surprisingly, almost no one here smokes.”