MINOT AIR FORCE BASE When air traffic controllers at Minot Air Force Base are at work, they are in the newest and most modern control tower of the Department of Defense.
"This is the prototype for all future towers," said Lt. Col. David Gordon, commander of the 5th Operations Support Squadron, a unit of the 5th Bomb Wing at the Minot base.
The 10-flight facility replaces a control tower that opened in 1966.
Master Sgt. Adrain K. Haynes, front, chief air traffic controller at Minot Air Force Base, and Senior Airman Charles A. Allen, an air traffic controller, are shown Oct. 8 in the cab of the base’s new control tower.
A ribbon-cutting was held in August to celebrate the completion of the base's new air traffic control tower and Base Operations Facility, a $16.3 million project.
Currently, 33 people are assigned as air traffic controllers to the entire facility, a 24-hour operation, said Master Sgt. Adrain Haynes, chief air traffic controller at the new tower. Of that number, three are civilians and the rest are military members.
Air traffic controllers monitor planes, communicate with pilots and keep air traffic flowing efficiently and safely.
Haynes said the air traffic controllers at the Minot AFB tower "provide a safe and orderly flow for the air traffic operation within the five nautical miles that we have in our airspace."
The base air traffic controllers coordinate with others including radar approach control RAPCON at Ellsworth AFB at Rapid City, S.D. RAPCON formerly was located at Minot AFB until August 2008 when it was moved to Ellsworth.
Haynes said the base air traffic controllers talk to Minneapolis Center during isolated incidents. "We mainly coordinate with Ellsworth and Magic City (in Minot)," he added.
Gordon explaining those who work in the control tower cab, said the local controllers control aircraft on the runway and the local airspace surrounding Minot AFB.
A ground controller is responsible for aircraft that are taxiing on the runway and separation of aircraft and vehicles on the airfield, he said.
A supervisor of flying, who is a rated aircraft aircrew member, talks to the crew members in the aircraft to make sure the tower is coordinating between them and the people on the ground as well to accomplish the mission, he said.
He said there's also a watch supervisor, an experienced shift member, who is in charge of making sure everyone is doing the right job.
Gordon said when the guidance for the recent furloughs came out certain positions were exempted that were related to overseas contingency operations, safety... "positions that were necessary for us to continue what we do safely." He said air traffic control was one of the positions exempted from the furlough actions.
Since April, there has been construction on the east end of the base runway and it has had an impact on the flights.
"Because of the short runway we're able to operate but at a reduced capacity," Gordon said.
The construction of the east end of the runway is scheduled to be finished at the end of this month and the runway will be fully opened.
"Last year we had the other end of the runway under construction. This year we're working on the east end of the runway and then next year we're hoping to replace the center section," Gordon said.
He said some of the concrete has been repoured in past years but some has not. "Obviously, with the 50 or 60 winters that we've had since the concrete was poured, it's taken its toll on the condition of that pavement," Gordon said.
The Minot tower has about 10,000 operations a year.
Haynes said it is a different type of mission than other airfields. Although the actual numbers are lower, the mission itself makes it high ops.
Mainly the B-52s with the 5th Bomb Wing and the helicopters with the 91st Missile Wing are the biggest business for the Minot AFB tower.
"The difference between this tower and most other towers in the Air Force is that we are able to take all the facilities necessary to train and equip our controllers and put it into one facility, whereas most bases will have separate buildings that they do their training in, separate buildings that they do their work in and then they'll come here to specifically control," Gordon said.
"This building actually has a facility for training. Right now we're working on getting an air traffic control simulator in that portion of the building so they can practice emergencies that wouldn't be safe to actually practice in the air, and trainer controllers can get their proficiency that way," Gordon said.
The new tower also has office space.
Master Sgt. Odette Toppin said initially air traffic controllers' training takes place at Keesler AFB in Mississippi. That is the site for air traffic control school for those just entering the career field, she said.
Toppin, an air traffic controller new to Minot AFB, said now she has to get rated for this location. "I have to learn the airspace, the runway, the airplanes the type of airfield, the taxiways," she said.
She will complete training for ground control and also local. Once her trainer feels she is ready to operate on her own, she will go through the certification process.
"When my trainer feels that I am ready to operate on my own, then I will go up to certification and then qualified to work on my own in that position once I pass. Local control the same thing," she said.
"The basic principles of air traffic are the same. So when you get your initial ratings at your present facility, you can carry on to your next base and you are just basically learning that airspace, that Air Force aircraft, their availability the things that they can do." Haynes said. "But you still have to go up through the certification process as if you are a fresh, new trainee coming out of what we call tech school. It's the same process just shortened time."
The new control tower is the third one in the history of Minot AFB. When the original Base Operations building was built on the north side of the runway in 1957, a control tower was attached. But when infrastructure was built the end of the runway could not be seen from that tower and a another tower on the south side of the runway was constructed. That tower was used until the new one was completed.
Mike Porreca, a civilian air traffic controller who previously was a military air traffic controller, worked in the old tower for nearly two decades.
"The only space we had available in the old one was the actual tower cab. We had a break room that was probably half the size of this one," said Porreca, indicating the break room in the new control tower.
He said there was an office for the chief controller in the old tower. "That was the only living space in that facility and one bathroom," he said. "It was cramped to say the least. This is a palace compared to the old one. This is amazing," he said, "I can appreciate (the new one) since I did 17 years in the old one."
The elevator in the old tower did not work for the last two years of its use and because it wasn't safe it had to be shut down. It was so old the parts could no longer be obtained.
The old tower caught fire several times. Porreca recalled there was a major fire in the old tower in 1986 and also a couple smaller fires with the lighting panel. The smaller fires were contained and didn't do any extensive damage.
The old tower was about the same height as the new one.
"But the other stairs were more ladder-like. It was a lot steeper of an angle compared to these stairs," Porreca said. The elevator will take air traffic controllers most of the way to the top of the tower and then they use steps.
The old tower would sway in the wind and sometimes the wind would blow panels off the side of the tower.
"We lost four floors of paneling in one storm. I mean, we came in one day and we had a new sunroom. It was literally from the base floor four floors gone. We had to secure the building with an airman for days," Porreca said. When they walked out of the old tower, he said, they looked up to make sure nothing on the tower was loose, "especially when it was windy because it was no telling what was going to fall off."
An escape system had been installed at the old tower about 10 years ago.
"It was basically a net that they would throw off the side of the tower. It would be secured to a bunker or barrier system by the fire department and you would slide down it to get out of there in an emergency," Porreca said.
"This tower is designed so much more robust," Gordon said. "It actually has sensors that can detect the smell of an overheating wire. Before it even gets to the point it catches fire, it sounds an alarm that the system is potentially overheating."