Air traffic controllers get job done in Albania

24 May 2003 | Sgt. Roman Yurek

Some of the first naval assets to land in Albania at the beginning of a two week bilateral training exercise last week were Marines from the Air Traffic Control Mobile Team (MMT), 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), along with their Navy counterparts from Tactical Air Control Squadron-22 (TACRON-22), Amphibious Squadron-6 (PHIBRON-6).

With radios in hand and ready for work, the MMT and TACRON service members arrived early in the MEU's offload to coordinate incoming U.S. military aircraft to the Tirane-Rinas International Airport and established an organized flow for all subsequent U.S. flights thereby ensuring deconfliction with ongoing operations.

Since May 17, a small MMT crew of three Marines and four Sailors has been working around the clock in the control tower and the air traffic control center at the airport. 

The U.S. and Albanian air traffic controllers have shared the challenging task of sequencing Marine aircraft amidst the daily flow of civilian planes.

One would think that there would be a significant language barrier to overcome, said Petty Officer First Class Greg Schoolcraft, an air traffic controller of TACRON-22.  However, since English is the international language for air traffic controllers, the transition was quite easy, he said.

Once the Marines and Sailors made an initial liaison with the local airport authorities for use of the airfield, they established landing spots for the different Marine aircraft.

With no airfield lights for the MEU's allocated section of taxiway, the MMT Marines marked the landing spots for the aircraft with expeditionary runway lights.
The next task was setting up the Tactical Aid to Navigation (TACAN), a navigational aid for the incoming aircraft.  This system sends out a 40 nautical-mile signal to incoming aircraft letting the pilots know how far and what bearing they are from the field, explained Staff Sgt. James Wentling, the detachment's officer-in-charge.

Once all the spots were set and the navigational aid in place, the MMT and TACRON personnel turned to manning the control tower and the radar control center.
The entire crew has to stay 'on their toes' to ensure that the increase in air traffic was handled safely and expeditiously. 
"This is a job where you have to be 100 percent, all the time," said Wentling.  Less than that would hamper the MEU's ability to accomplish its mission, he said.

"This has been a very good experience for my Marines, Sailors and our Albanian counterparts," said Capt. Brad Green, 28, MACG OIC.  "Many of our procedures and those of the Albanian [Air Traffic Controllers] are quite similar and we shared a lot with one another.  We don't get any opportunities while aboard ship to control aircraft as they arrive and depart, so anytime that I can get my Marines out to do it, that is a good opportunity.  We've thoroughly enjoyed the Albanians' hospitality here and we look forward to coming back," said the Glendale, Ca., native.

To learn more about the MMT and the rest of the 26th MEU (SOC), visit them on the web at www.26meu.usmc.mil.