Combat controllers can use HALO/HAHO techniques, SCUBA, ATVs, or
plain old walking in to infiltrate an area before a large drop to set up
and mark the drop zone. If an airfield was to be seized by an airborne drop,
Combat Controllers would jump with the assaulting force to set up as an on-site
friendly ATC to guide in incoming transports that would be used to resupply
and strengthen the airfield assault force.
A mobile Air Traffic Control; USAF Combat Controllers were responsible
for much of the air traffic around temporary airfields in Saudi Arabia during
the Gulf War. In the UN actions within Somalia, Combat Control members from
the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron were responsible for "air space management
and air traffic control and terminal guidance" for 72 hours during Operation
United Shield in Mogadishu. During that time they oversaw over 150 aircraft
sorties from the airport.
When Master Sgt. Paul “Vinnie” Venturella leaves for the
office, he’s got a variety of transportation options.
“I can get to work in any manner — jumping, diving, walking,
vehicle, boat or submarine,” the 16-year combat controller
That’s because when they “punch in” these warriors
of the 321st Special Tactics Squadron at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England,
are expected to get to work fast. So there’s no time for a coffee
“We have to be able to get in immediately and establish terminal
control providing both air traffic control and, when necessary, close air
support [of fighters] without any infrastructure and little airlift,”
said Maj. Michael Sneeder, squadron commander.
For example, when conducting combat rescue operations, special tactics
operators are trained to push a boat out of a plane over the ocean in the
dark of night, freefall parachute into the water, inflate the boat and get
to the mission. They’re equipped to endure any environment on land,
sea or sky.
Although this operational version of extreme transportation sounds
like something out of a James Bond movie, these ironmen don’t have the
luxury of wearing designer suits. And instead of hidden pocket-sized gadgets,
they’re sporting more than 100 pounds of equipment, including chemical
gear, rucksack, parachute and radio equipment, on their backs when they hit
the ground running.
“When we get to work, our job is to talk on the radio and make
things happen,” Venturella said. “We’re an air-to-ground interface
— a conduit of information that ties the ground to the air
Making things happen requires these camo-clad comrades to adapt to
any environmental condition. And training takes care of this, physically
“Basically we have to drownproof our people to develop their
confidence so when they’re in a tough situation they can survive,”
But dropping into austere locations in extreme conditions takes more
than just confidence. Speed is the name of the game when an operation depends
on controllers setting up an airfield.
“I can put a guy on a motorcycle, and he can pull portable lights
out of his rucksack, shortly after landing at the location, to mark a
runway,” Sneeder said.
In Somalia, one of many examples, combat control teams landed and
set up landing zone operations and communications immediately with equipment
they carried in rucksacks. Then for three weeks, they safely controlled a
large volume of air traffic before a mobile air traffic control unit was
airlifted to the location to relieve them.
The nature of the business requires these guys have the
“juice” it takes to be in top physical condition.
“We jump out of airplanes, scuba dive, shoot and rappel,”
said Tech. Sgt. James “Ski” Pulaski, Blue Team flight superintendent.
“Combat control requires us to maintain a high level of physical
And at least once a year, that fitness level is put to the test.
Standard physical training evaluations measure the warriors’ ability
to perform under physical pressure. They must complete a three-mile run,
1,500-meter swim, push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups within an allotted time.
Training for this takes hours at the gym and pounding the pavement. But
there’s more to working out than evaluations.
“Developing muscle mass through weightlifting ensures the body
endures the trauma of jumping out of an airplane,”Sneeder
Beyond the brawn, brains keep them performing. Although prioritizing
can be hectic, situational awareness, constant flexibility, forward thinking
and problem solving are skills that make or break a mission. And they are
skills that must be mastered.
“Being in charge as an air traffic controller, you’re the
man in charge of the airfield. Nothing goes on without you knowing it,”
Pulaski said. “I get a real rush when I’m ‘rockin’ on
the mike,’ separating air traffic and keeping things
According to Venturella, that’s a reason he fondly refers to
combat controllers as “sled dogs.”
“The lead dog is the number-one, go-to guy. The ‘musher’
is the team leader and the sled dogs are the work force — the muscle
behind getting the job done,” he explained.
The sled dogs are part of what he’s enjoyed about the Air
“The people I’ve been associated with — from day one
— have been the highlight of my career,” Venturella said.
He summed up his time as a controller with a
“misery-loves-company” comment. “The best part of the job
is knowing when you’re in ‘deep suck,’ your buddy is with
Ironically, despite the heavy operations tempo, many of the “sled
dogs” are so motivated by their jobs they can’t get off the ground
“They feel like they’re chained down if they can’t
go TDY,” Pulaski said. “It’s hard to explain the dynamics
of the job — you gotta do it to know it.”
“These guys want to get out there and prosecute the mission,”
And these airmen not only do it, they’re experts at it. In lockers
the size of small bathrooms, their military-issue equipment is stored in
the hangar they call home. This makes deploying rapidly, as a prepared team,
“We need to be able to make the leap from air operations to
Although he’s more removed from the trail, as the senior enlisted
manager, Venturella said being a sled dog during real-world missions is where
Pulaski agreed and said keeping things in perspective helps him
facilitate what the “musher” needs done.
However, he admitted, “Sometimes it feels like you’re trying
to grasp sand in your hands. But if you prioritize and delegate, you can
get the job done.”
Unfortunately, many people have no idea what combat controllers actually
do when it comes to getting the job done.
“Among Air Force members, there are noncommissioned officers
who don’t know we’re Air Force special operations forces. Every
other service knows who their special forces are,” Pulaski said. “No
one really understands. They think we control combat. Even my wife has a
hard time explaining what I do, so she tells people I’m a
With only 350 combat controllers in the career field and six bases
they can move to and from, it’s not surprising they’re an elusive
bunch to most of the force. But it’s more surprising that even airmen
at bases they’re stationed at don’t know about the “scarlet
“I was at my first duty assignment, at McChord Air Force Base
[Wash.], and this airman came up to me and asked ‘What do you do?’
When I told him I was a combat controller stationed there he couldn’t
believe it,” Venturella said. “He was at my base and didn’t
know we were there.”
He believes the lack of recognition and misunderstood role stems
from not having a direct correlation to a civilian job.
“Most Americans aren’t aware of what we do, and much of
what we do isn’t very sexy,” he said. “We don’t have
movies made about us — so education is the key to understanding our
He summarized what they do with three simple words — shoot,
But it takes more than squared-away operators to keep things on track.
Mission support airmen perform combat arms training and maintenance, vehicle
and radio maintenance, intelligence and logistics functions to keep the
brotherhood moving. Every 120 days, members enter into a training cycle that
incorporates shooting on the run to keep proficient using the M-9 semiautomatic
pistol and multifunctional M-4 rifle — a shortened version of the M16A2
“Our guys know what to do in the field so when we attach to
a joint unit it’s seamless,” Sneeder said. “Because if
you’re not communicating, you’re not doing your job. You’re
just a cool guy with neat merit badges.”
With these adrenaline hounds, it’s all about the excitement
of the mission.
“How could you give this up when there’s so much to get
out of it?” Pulaski asked. “Even though there are sacrifices,
you’re always learning in this career field.”