While it’s sometimes difficult for civilians to visualize the jobs performed by many Air Force specialists, that certainly isn’t the case with Air Traffic Controllers (1C1X1). Everyone is familiar with the image of a control tower at an airfield (and if not the image on the Air Traffic Control badge is a quick reminder), and most of us have an idea of the general responsibilities and tasks of Air Traffic Controllers.

What we don’t often stop to consider, however, is just how high the stakes are when it comes to job performance. A minor mistake can result in the loss of time, money, and resources; the consequences of a major miscalculation can be profound.

The gravity of their work means that during 10-plus weeks of Air Traffic Control (ATC) training at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, future ATC specialists can expect to be challenged during every step of the learning process. Being able to perform several functions simultaneously is an inherent part of what ATC specialists do, so it’s critical that they are so acquainted with equipment and procedures that their use and execution become second nature.

Although advanced radars, communications, and navigation systems have somewhat eased the burden on Air Traffic Controllers in both the Air Force and in civilian air travel, they still must rely on visual and non-radar techniques to manage the flow of aircraft. This includes aircraft that are landing, taking off, or being moved to maintenance or parking areas, as well support vehicles handling resupply or towing.

Of course, even the most advanced technologies—both those associated with ATC functions as well as the sundry systems aboard modern aircraft—are prone to system failures. When an aircraft is experiencing difficulties, it’s the job of ATC specialists to assist the pilot and aircrew in the implementation of emergency procedures, from directing it to the most appropriate landing area to taking all the requisite steps to ensure a safe landing or, at the very least, minimize to the greatest possible extent the chances of damage and injury.

Like nearly all occupational badges, the Senior ATC badge is awarded when Airmen qualify at the 1C171 level, which on average takes about seven-and-a-half years; they also must have reached the rank of Staff Sergeant.

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