Air Traffic Controllers: The Elite of the Fleet

Story by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Adelola Tinubu // Staff Writer


Flight operations are an integral part of the daily mission aboard aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). The precise steps necessary to launch and recover aircraft safely is a culmination of efforts from several teams of Sailors, coordinating within each department and squadron.

Much of the work happens in the Carrier Air Traffic Control Center, where Sailors control the direction of aircraft during launch and recovery evolutions. Pilots work closely with experts in CATCC to ensure a safe flight evolution. CATCC controls the airspace surrounding the ship out to 50 miles.

The landing process, one of the most crucial parts of a flight, begins with all aircraft checking in with Marshal. Within this radar scope, the aircraft are directed to fly in calculated circles referred to as Marshal holding pattern, making it possible for CATCC to determine their speed, altitude and location. In this six-minute pattern, airborne aircraft fly in even, predictable intervals.

“Marshal is very important because it’s the first voice after a mission,” said Air Traffic Controller 1st Class Amadeo Chavez. “Marshal is the beginning of the recovery process. Here, controllers set up the aircraft to return safely, and in an orderly fashion.”

Truman’s air boss then sets a “ramp time,” signaling the time he wants the first plane to land on the flight deck. Controllers in CATCC then issue an expected approach time derived from this ramp time. The pilot is responsible for commencing inbound to the ship from Marshal at the expected approach time.

“Everything is carefully orchestrated with the flight deck,” said Cmdr. Ryan Ahler, principal assistant to the Operations Department Officer. “It’s very important that recovery is done at the right time. This is because the flight deck may be launching, making it impossible for airborne aircraft to safely land.”


CATCC monitors radar during the approach for landing as each aircraft lines up on the final bearing, the centerline of the ship. A controller working on the approach scope will relay a signal to the pilot to put the wheels of the aircraft down and get into the landing position.


“We issue turns, speeds adjustments, altitude and decide when the pilot needs to transition to a landing configuration,” said Air Traffic Controller 1st Class Matthew Dunn. “This makes the landing process last a little longer. But we try our best to balance safety with efficiency.”


In order to maintain positive control of the aircraft, controllers in CATCC depend on radar. They also maintain communication with pilots during flight evolutions to mitigate some of the dangers of flying during various weather conditions that reduce the pilot’s situational awareness.


“We work based on what we can see,” said Dunn. “At times we are the eyes and ears of the pilot. They rely on us, especially during inclement weather.”


Ultimately, the final controller takes over and assumes responsibility for keeping the aircraft lined up on the final bearing, and ensuring the pilot descends at the proper angle.


“This is a critical phase of flight,” said Air Traffic Controller 2nd Class Matthew Ferrell. “Ensuring an aircraft receives a good approach is crucial to the aircraft landing.”


At about three quarters of a mile away from the ship, the final controller tells the pilot to “call the ball.” The “ball” is a visual landing aid that gives the pilot an idea of where they need to land, allowing the pilot to make small adjustments if necessary.


“CATCC is an extremely dynamic environment,” said Dunn. “No two recoveries are exactly alike. Some are very simple and some are complex.”


To mitigate any potential complications, the landing signal officer communicates with the pilot the last few quarters of a mile until the plane catches the arresting gear wire and lands safely.


“CATCC is responsible for getting our Sailors home,” said Chavez. “I love our job. I believe we’re the elite of the fleet.”


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