CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan --
Fewer than 100 Marines control nearly 100,000 square miles of airspace in southwestern Afghanistan.
Sgt. Travis Bryant is one of these Marines. Bryant, a tactical air traffic controller, spends his days in the back of a modified humvee. He spends up to 12 hours every day watching blips on a radar scope each a helicopter or jet flown by a coalition pilots. He speaks through a headset to the pilots advising them of other traffic and keeping them out of harm’s way.
“There is no training evolution that will fully prepare somebody for the job they are going to do out here,” said Gunnery Sgt. Richard White, a Marine Corps tactical air traffic controller. “Despite the great training we do in the States, it is not nearly as complex with as many aircraft and nations all participating in operations.”
The airspace is used by allied aircraft that are a part of NATO International Security Assistant Force, to provide aviation support troops on the ground. Every day in the air above southwestern Afghanistan, there are literally hundreds of aircraft operating in close proximity to one another.
White, Bryant and other Marine Air Control Squadron 2 Marines man the Tactical Air Operations Center at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. These Marines operate and maintain radar arrays, communicate with pilots, and ensurethe Afghan skies are safe.
“We stay in contact with the aircraft and observe our radar to control the airspace,” explained Bryant, a native of Elizabethtown, Ky. “We talk to them and make sure that we can deconflict any issues between air traffic.”
U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Air Force and British helicopters and jets provide close-air support and troop and cargo transport. U.S. Army helicopters conduct medical evacuations to carry injured troops to safety. French, Belgian, Italian and Australian aircraft also routinely operate in southwestern Afghanistan.
“If something messes up, the consequences of that could be very catastrophic,” said White, a Marine with 14 years of experience as an air traffic controller, and a native of Ponca City, Okla. “Not only for the pilots who could have issues with other aircraft they are in close proximity with, but the ground troops relying on these aircraft for support.”