Shoot, Move, Communicate

For combat controllers, a ‘day at the office’ isn’t a cup of coffee and the morning paper — it’s more like a jump in the drink and making the news

Combat Controllers are tasked with guiding aircraft into unimproved or recently liberated airfields. In addition, they may make temporary fields for use by aircraft, cutting trees or in some cases removing mines from the potential landing site. They may also have to remove obstacles placed on airfields.

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 said.

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 break.

“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 operationally.”

Making things happen requires these camo-clad comrades to adapt to any environmental condition. And training takes care of this, physically and mentally.

“Basically we have to drownproof our people to develop their confidence so when they’re in a tough situation they can survive,” Sneeder said.

More than confidence

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 fitness.”

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 said.

Pickin’ up what’s goin’ down

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 moving.”

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 Force.

“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 you.”

Blazing a trail

Ironically, despite the heavy operations tempo, many of the “sled dogs” are so motivated by their jobs they can’t get off the ground enough.

“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.”

Venturella agreed.

“These guys want to get out there and prosecute the mission,” he said.

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, possible.

“We need to be able to make the leap from air operations to ground operations.”

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 it’s at.

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.”

Force recognition

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 cook.”

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 berets.”

“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 mission.”

He summarized what they do with three simple words — shoot, move, communicate.

Brothers in arms

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 rifle.

“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.”