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Radar Approach Control keeps Cannon flying amidst pandemic

Airman 1st Class Brandon Roland, 27th Special Operations Support Squadron air traffic control apprentice, checks the intended flight plan for an aircraft at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., July 23, 2020. The radar approach control facility gives guidance to all aircraft passing through their air space, whether they are military or civilian. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Vernon R. Walter III)

Airman 1st Class Brandon Roland, 27th Special Operations Support Squadron air traffic control apprentice, checks the intended flight plan for an aircraft at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., July 23, 2020. The radar approach control facility gives guidance to all aircraft passing through their air space, whether they are military or civilian. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Vernon R. Walter III)

Members of the 27th Special Operations Support Squadron radar approach control team check the radar screen for potential weather at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., July 23, 2020. The RAPCON is a facility that provides guidance and communication in the air space from 2,600 feet above ground level up to an altitude of 17,000 feet in the air. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Vernon R. Walter III)

Members of the 27th Special Operations Support Squadron radar approach control team check the radar screen for potential weather at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., July 23, 2020. The RAPCON is a facility that provides guidance and communication in the air space from 2,600 feet above ground level up to an altitude of 17,000 feet in the air. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Vernon R. Walter III)

An MC130-J lifts off after performing a touch-and-go maneuver at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, July 23, 2020. When an aircraft wants to leave or enter Cannon’s airfield, a flight path needs to be established with the 27th Special Operations Support Squadron radar approach control team. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Vernon R. Walter III)

An MC130-J lifts off after performing a touch-and-go maneuver at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, July 23, 2020. When an aircraft wants to leave or enter Cannon’s airfield, a flight path needs to be established with the 27th Special Operations Support Squadron radar approach control team. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Vernon R. Walter III)

The chief controller of the 27th Special Operations Support Squadron radar approach control facility watches as their team keeps an eye on the air space they control at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., July 23, 2020. The chief control provides overwatch to ensure all Airmen have support during high-traffic hours. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Vernon R. Walter III)

The chief controller of the 27th Special Operations Support Squadron radar approach control facility watches as their team keeps an eye on the air space they control at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., July 23, 2020. The chief control provides overwatch to ensure all Airmen have support during high-traffic hours. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Vernon R. Walter III)

A radar screen of the area surrounding Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., shows weather patterns and aircraft to provide the information the 27th Special Operations Support Squadron radar approach control team needs to perform their mission July 23, 2020. The radar shows a wide radius so that the team can prepare for whatever enters their air space. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Vernon R. Walter III)

A radar screen of the area surrounding Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., shows weather patterns and aircraft to provide the information the 27th Special Operations Support Squadron radar approach control team needs to perform their mission July 23, 2020. The radar shows a wide radius so that the team can prepare for whatever enters their air space. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Vernon R. Walter III)

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --

When a MC-130J leaves Cannon, they ensure communication with the air traffic control tower to make sure they can safely depart. But as they climb into the sky, they aren’t able to keep in contact with the tower. But instead of flying blind, the pilots rely on the guidance of the 27th Special Operations Support Squadron’s Radar Approach Control.

RAPCON is a facility that provides guidance and communication for the air space between 2,600 ft. above ground level up to 17,000 ft. in the air. From their facility, they provide all aircraft transiting through their airspace, whether military or civilian, guidance on how best to fly to their destination safely and swiftly.

“Even if the sky is clear, it is our job to paint a clear picture for the aircraft,” said Master Sgt. Christopher J. Boren, 27 SOSS RAPCON assistant chief controller. “The name of the game is to get aircraft safely in, out or through our airspace and keep them informed of other aircraft, weather or an array of abnormalities. We don’t just tell them what to do, it’s a two-way dialogue of trust resulting in positive control.”

This positive control allows pilots and controllers to work together and achieve mission success.

“Positive control is essentially two-way communication with aircraft,” Boren said. “We’re able to give them instructions, and they are able to comply with those instructions. We try to be as proactive as possible, but there are times a situation calls for smart autonomy in real-time.  That’s what we train to, a proactive mindset with the resilience to be reactive if necessary.”  

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, the RAPCON team had to utilize their quick adaptability to overcome the challenges the pandemic presented. Their job can’t be completed from home, so teleworking was out of the question.

“It was a pretty big change for us,” said Senior Airman Brady Erickson, 27 SOSS air traffic controller. “It felt like every day we would receive new guidance, working different shifts or trying to go back to normal. It was different, but it was good. Our flying window was a little busier, making it a lot more fun for us.”

While dealing with the constant changes to guidance and workflow, the 27 SOSS had to also find a way to keep training new Airmen. Due to the high demands of working in the RAPCON, new Airmen must receive on average over a year of training to be qualified to perform air traffic control. In order to overcome this hurdle, the RAPCON team had their trainees telework and set up online calls for teaching.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve had to keep our controllers safe, especially early on” Boren said. “Luckily our initial local area training is heavily knowledge based, so we were able to get our trainees started with teleworking. Then came fixing our hours and how we work around the facility to keep our workflow steady. Because of how dynamic the 27th Special Operations Wing’s mission is, we have to be adaptable. I think we do great at that.”

The RAPCON team continues to adapt as new guidance comes down. Despite the pandemic, they still provide safe guidance to Cannon aircraft to ensure the 27 SOW completes its mission.

“There hasn’t been any precedent in the last 100 years for how to handle a pandemic,” Erickson said. “Slowly, being abnormal is feeling more normal. You have to adjust on the fly, and we handle that well down here. In air traffic, you have to think on your feet and have multiple ways to complete a task. That’s something we’re all trained to do, and it has definitely helped us overcome the challenges of COVID-19.”