BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan --
There’s a room tucked away in the corner of a building at Bagram Airfield, where the ‘eyes and ears of the commander’ lives. The room features ample desk space, a few computer monitors, and binders full of checklists. When the phone rings, a command and control specialist picks up. This time it’s a C-130 requesting refueling upon landing. The ground coordination immediately begins as the command and control specialist systematically executes the steps outlined by her checklists to fulfill the request.
The primary mission of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Command Post is to flight-follow C-5, C-17 and C-130 aircraft. Command and control specialists are responsible for knowing when various aircraft arrive and depart, and recognizing what aircrews may need in order to continue performing their missions.
“One of our primary goals in command post is effective mission movement of aircraft across the theater of operations,” said Senior Master Sgt. Sailanka Pangilinan, command post superintendent. “We assist operations from medical evacuation flights to the delivery of mission essential cargo and personnel by enabling the resources that our aircrews utilize.”
They also respond to ground or in-flight emergencies by making the required notifications to applicable agencies. Nearly every process comes with its own checklist that outlines who to call and in what order, but there is some wiggle room for proactivity.
Controller Basic Checklists outline what controllers need to do during their shift, as well as how to set-up different command post systems. But controllers may deviate from the checklists depending on the situation, said Senior Airman Hannah Smith, senior emergency actions controller.
“It’s referred to as ‘controller judgement,’” Smith said. “Being proactive in the CP typically means making phone calls you wouldn't normally make in order to make a situation flow more smoothly.”
Not all events are as routine as refueling aircraft, especially in a deployed environment, where a seemingly slow day can suddenly become quite hectic during an emergency. The self-discipline and composure necessary to analyze whether or not a situation allows some deviation can be the defining characteristic in a life or death situation.
Controllers have nearly 100 Quick Reaction Checklists to help ensure they collect all the pertinent details about an incident, Smith said. After gathering the necessary information, they begin notifying commanders.
“We’re oftentimes referred to as the ‘eyes and ears of the commander’ since we know everything that is going on, emergency or not, and we relay that information to commanders,” Smith said.
Although calling senior leadership about an emergency in the middle of the night can feel nerve-wracking, Smith understands the importance of her responsibility.
“I still get flustered … talking to colonels and generals can be very intimidating when you’re unfamiliar with the incident you are telling them about,” Smith said. “Regardless, it’s about maintaining composure, remaining focused, and giving it your best effort every single day.”
Smith has a tremendous responsibility that garners direct impact to the mission on a daily basis. For her, joining the Air Force presented an opportunity to add more meaning into her life. Once she became a command post controller, she immediately discovered the purpose behind her job. She said she vividly remembers her first day of training at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.
“There was an in-flight emergency, the phones were ringing off the hook, and I couldn’t believe how the controllers knew what to do,” Smith said. “I thought there would never be a day where I would be able make a phone call in a situation like that without sounding concerned or scared.”
Quickly she realized to be successful in this career field, she needed to thoroughly familiarize herself with the procedures. Developing confidence in herself became a byproduct of the work she put in, especially once she realized why maintaining composure truly mattered.
“It is important to remain composed because people rely on us to relay the story to them quickly and with enough information so that they can take their own actions,” she said. “Turns out, composure comes with confidence in your abilities to perform your job effectively.”
While the environments at Spangdahlem and Bagram differ vastly, Smith said her time in Germany prepared her for this deployment since the command post mission is similar to that of her home station. But there are unique aspects of the mission in a combat zone, including indirect fire attacks on the base.
“My heart still skips a beat every time that alarm goes off and we hop into action making notifications,” Smith said. “That doesn’t mean that I feel added pressure here; the pressure is on all the time since I don’t want to make a wrong decision here or at home.”
While she doesn’t consider herself a “seasoned” controller, Smith is an integral team member who stands out both at home station and Bagram. Pangilinan said Smith’s passion for her job is evident in her work ethic and outstanding customer service.
“Smith is an exceptional troop because she already performs beyond her years at a noncommissioned officer level,” Pangilinan said. “Her ability to solve mission requirement changes unassisted makes her an extremely valuable asset.”
Smith’s hard work, dedication and talent don’t go unrecognized; in 2018 she was awarded Airman of the 1st and 2nd Quarter and Wing Staff Airman of the Year at Spangdahlem, and Airman of the 4th Quarter at Bagram. While she appreciates the recognition, she said her motivation comes from fulfilling her duties to the best of her abilities.
“I like coming to work and knowing that I’m making an impact,” Smith said. “I want to make sure that I’m doing what I’m doing well. It’s simply a personal standard.”
The 455th Air Expeditionary Wing is the Air Force’s premier counterterrorism wing in Afghanistan and supports Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and NATO’s Resolute Support mission. Headquartered at Bagram, the wing has geographically separated units at Kandahar and Jalalabad airfields in Afghanistan and provides decisive airpower throughout the region.