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ATC Airmen orchestrate sound of freedom

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Samuel McLean, 20th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, looks for aircraft through binoculars at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., April 5, 2018.

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Samuel McLean, 20th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, looks for aircraft through binoculars at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., April 5, 2018. Air traffic control Airmen use a variety of means to keep track of aircraft, including radar and visual tracking. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Destinee Sweeney)

U.S. Air Force Capt. Kyle Rasmussen, 55th Fighter Squadron pilot acting as the air traffic control tower flying supervisor, records information on a computer while Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Gordon, 20th Operations Support Squadron watch supervisor, speaks with tower Airmen at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., April 5, 2018.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Kyle Rasmussen, 55th Fighter Squadron pilot acting as the air traffic control tower flying supervisor, records information on a computer while Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Gordon, 20th Operations Support Squadron watch supervisor, speaks with tower Airmen at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., April 5, 2018. The air traffic control tower Airmen work as a team to maintain pilot’s safety in the airspace and on the flightline. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Destinee Sweeney)

Airmen assigned to the 20th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control tower direct aircraft within their designated airspace to ensure smooth operations and safety.

Airmen assigned to the 20th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control tower direct aircraft within their designated airspace to ensure smooth operations and safety. Air traffic controller trainees must complete various certificates, be certified for all tower roles and learn local aircraft regulations before they are finished training. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Destinee Sweeney)

A U.S. Airman assigned to the 20th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control tower watches an F-16CM Fighting Falcon taxi down the runway at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., April 5, 2018.

A U.S. Airman assigned to the 20th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control tower watches an F-16CM Fighting Falcon taxi down the runway at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., April 5, 2018. Air traffic controllers ensure the safety and efficiency of aircraft movement in the air and on the ground. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Destinee Sweeney)

A U.S. Airman places down a “bone” on a desk in the air traffic control tower at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., April 5, 2018.

A U.S. Airman places down a “bone” on a desk in the air traffic control tower at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., April 5, 2018. Airmen assigned to the tower use bones as a tool to keep track of aircraft in the airspace. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Destinee Sweeney)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Gordon, 20th Operations Support Squadron watch supervisor, laughs while speaking to her Airmen at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., April 5, 2018.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Gordon, 20th Operations Support Squadron watch supervisor, laughs while speaking to her Airmen at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., April 5, 2018. Air traffic controllers rely on communication to effectively work as a team and direct aircraft within Shaw’s airspace. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Destinee Sweeney)

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- During a symphony, the conductor stands above his team and raises his baton, directing a multitude of individuals operating different equipment and creating something beautiful to the ear. Without worry for their fellow instrumentalists, the musicians train their eyes on the individual in front of them who leads them to success.

Similarly, air traffic control Airmen manage the skies from atop their tower, keeping a watchful eye over and providing direction for pilots both in the air and on the ground.

“We have pretty big responsibilities,” said Senior Airman Samuel McLean, 20th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller. “We’re talking to pilots who are controlling multi-million dollar aircraft. If we do something wrong we’re potentially destroying those aircraft and may have lives on our hands.”

To become a conductor of the skies, Airmen must undergo rigorous training to learn how to overcome obstacles and take control of various roles in the tower.

“The training is pretty intense,” said McLean. “You start out with a little piece of paper and you have to memorize the runways, the airspace and all the squadrons here.”

After honing their skills, controllers become certified tower operators and receive certifications for each tower position, but continue to study to maintain their proficiency.

“It’s rewarding, yet a relief at the same time,” said Senior Airman Jacob Winscott, 20th OSS air traffic controller. “The amount of time you spend outside of work memorizing phraseology, rules and separation requirements between aircraft — when you finally reach the point where you memorize all those and you’re performing at the level you’re expected to and you get to wear the five-level badge … and you’re recognized as a controller and not a trainee, it’s very rewarding.”

After becoming a fully-fledged air traffic controller, Airmen work in teams to direct traffic and monitor the airspace, determining the ebb and flow of the runways below them.

McLean said teamwork is a huge part of their job and having multiple eyes on the aircraft ensures the entire tower floor is aware of their locations.

Together, the 20th OSS air traffic controllers maintain the airspace with safety in mind, allowing 20th Fighter Wing pilots to compose the sound of freedom and prepare to employ combat-ready airpower anytime, anywhere.