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Day in the Life: ATC keeps Aviators flying above the best

Staff Sgt. Justin Dotson, C Company, 1st Battalion, 11th Aviation Regiment, instructs a student pilot flying an Apache down a lane at Hatch Tower March 20. (Photo by Sara E. Martin)

Staff Sgt. Justin Dotson, C Company, 1st Battalion, 11th Aviation Regiment, instructs a student pilot flying an Apache down a lane at Hatch Tower March 20. (Photo by Sara E. Martin)

Published: March 28, 2014

FORT RUCKER, Ala. (March 28, 2014) -- He calmly calls out to Firebird 69 and soon the Apache pulls off Lane No. 1. He checks the sky for the fifth time in a minute, out of habit even though he knows nothing will be there, just in case anything might hinder the bird’s takeoff.

Army Air Traffic Controller Staff Sgt. Justin Dotson, C Company, 1st Battalion, 11th Aviation Regiment, confirms with his trainee that no aircraft are expected and takes the time for a breather before one decides to surprise him.

Dotson is the training supervisor at Hatch Tower, which accommodates AH-64 Apaches and OH-58 Kiowa Warriors, and has been working at the facility since 2012, but every day is just as exciting as the last as the airspace and lanes at Hatch are used for emergency procedure training.

“Everything pilots do here is about if something goes wrong with the aircraft, how do they recover from it,” said Dotson. “They do exercises where they cut the engines off and come in and try to land, and times where they come in really fast and they have to slide in. Every day is different and interesting because a simulated emergency can turn into a real one, real quick.”

Dotson decided to join the military after the 9/11 attacks when he was a freshman in high school and has been an air traffic controller for nine years. He loves his job because there are many positions in a tower and different types of controlling that keep his mind challenged.

“The work is never mundane here working with student pilots who don’t know how to fly all that well. But that is what we are here for, to keep them safe when they make mistakes,” he said after a student pilot missed the landing pad and landed in the grass next to a lane.

Hatch works differently from many other towers operating at Fort Rucker because the mission size is much smaller. There are only two shifts and physical training is done in the morning together, unlike other towers that have to deal with night shift-scheduling issues.

With aircraft constantly coming in and ATC having to deconflict dangerous situations with critical thinking, Soldiers must have the personality and the mindset of a multitasker to handle the work, said the training supervisor.

“We have to make decisions that cannot really be taught – is not procedural, is not in the books. Controllers have to be able to react as soon as something happens,” he commented. “One wrong word from me might cause two pilots to land in the same spot, and now it’s my fault that the aircraft collided.”

Air traffic controllers are not only held to Army standards, but are also held to Federal Aviation Administration standards.

For most jobs, a person might get a certification and have it for life, but that’s not the case for air traffic controllers. By going through the Army’s school, ATC get a general certification to be a controller, but every single facility that Soldiers go to they have to restart at, said Dotson.

Soldiers have to go through a training program unique to that facility, which can be up to six months long. During that time they cannot control traffic without the supervision of a rated controller, and that is very challenging for many ATC, he said.

During the training program, there are over 20 tests that ATC must pass. They must be rated on the tower, meaning Soldiers are certified to control airspace according to Army and Federal Aviation Administration standards for that specific facility, not just the tower.

“This job is so important to keep the Army’s mission going. There are hundreds of student pilots that we help train,” said Dotson. “ATC is that safe zone. We are the ones who know where they are. If something happens, we know the procedures to follow to get them help and we can deconflict them to make sure they are not going to hit each other so they can continue on with their mission, and get it done as fast as possible and as safe as possible.

“Without Aviation, it would be very difficult for the military to have the influence that it does overseas, and without air traffic controllers, we couldn’t safely fly and land and complete those important missions,” he continued. “ATC gives pilots the ability to get into hot zones to get the wounded and get them out, or to complete whatever mission it might be.”

Dotson cited a story about when he was in Kuwait of the importance of ATC.

“A Soldier really needed to be (medically evacuated) out, but (there was) a sandstorm,” he said. “But the Navy launched despite being unable to see 20 feet in front of you. And it was our radar system that brought them back in safely.”

Dotson said that he could hear the dependency in the pilots’ voices as the ATC guided them along.

“We were the only way they were going to get on the ground because their equipment wouldn’t work in the storm and they couldn’t see anything. Our efforts saved that Soldier’s life and kept the pilots who were willing to go out to save him safe,” he said.

“This job is definitely the best in the Army,” he said as he took control of the tower again to receive an incoming Apache.

This article was originally published at

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