ROCKINGHAM — The Army has taken control of Richmond County airspace — temporarily.
Soldiers set up Wednesday in the field on the back side of the runway at the Richmond County Airport for a training exercise in controlling air traffic.
“We’re one of two active-component Army units that does airfield occupation,” said Lt. Col Ashley Lee, commander of the 3-58th Airfield Operations Battalion based at Fort Bragg.
Lee said the location was chosen due to its proximity to Fort Bragg and the cooperation of the airport.
“The airfield management team is super friendly, they’re very supportive of Army training,” she said, adding that there aren’t as many limitations as at other airports. “Some of the airfields, understandably, are a bit hesitant to have an entire air traffic control battalion out here.”
Helping the battalion with their training were pilots from the Civil Air Patrol, with single-engine planes, and the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, flying Black Hawk and Apache helicopters, giving the controllers a variety of fixed-wing aircraft and rotary assets, according to Lee.
The battalion’s mission is to be able to provide any ground combat commander an ability to assess an airfield, give them the green light that the airfield can support either fixed-wing or rotary assets to support the ground forces, and bring in those aircraft.
The soldiers were split into four main facilities.
The Tactical Terminal Control System is comprised of a Humvee with radios used in expeditionary operations. The portable tower system can be set up within about 30 minutes and provides control for pickup, landing and drop zones.
For more long-term operations, they use the Mobile Tower System, which simulates an airport’s control tower.
Across the field was the Tactical Airspace Integration System, where soldiers can “paint a 3-D near-real-time picture” of the airspace for the command team for accountability and tracking.
The soldiers at that station can remote the information to the commander so he or she can see what’s happening in the airspace within the 4-5 nautical mile range. Anything outside those parameters is handled by the Mobile Tower System.
Over at the Air Traffic Navigation Integration Center, a cable sends information from the radar truck to the operations center, which includes a truck with four antenna on a truck and two taller ones in the field.
It’s used for precision approaches like guiding aircraft to touch down during inclement weather.
Col. Will Garber, brigade commander of the 164th Theater Airfield Operations Group based out of Fort Rucker, Alabama, said the Civil Air Patrol is a valuable partner in their training operations.
“They help us by (providing) traffic to train our controllers,” he said.
Garber said they try to replicate the density of traffic that the controllers would have to deal with in a real situation, having them separate multiple aircraft and give them clearance.
During Thursday’s exercise, controllers were handling three to four aircraft at a time.
They were also practicing emergency procedures, including having no communication, having a blown tire, touch-and-go and using precision-approach radar.
The exercise is scheduled to last until Monday, according to Lee.