Iraqi war heroes of the air did not sit in the cockpits
January 18,2004

Enemy fire, long days and blinding sandstorms in unfamiliar territory were just some of the things U.S. pilots faced during the war in Iraq.

Their voice of sanity in the craziness was the Marine Air Traffic Controller.

Some of these highly specialized Marines from New River Air Station deployed last spring with Marine Air Control Squadron 2, Maine Air Control Group 28, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing headquartered at Cherry Point Air Station from.

They use a small mobile aircraft control tower terminal that is mounted on the back of a Humvee until they can set up a larger 25-foot tower that comes in pieces and must be put together like an erector set.

When they arrived in Kuwait or several other operating bases in Iraq, they had to set up from scratch at airstrips with no buildings and a lot of sand.

"The first day we couldn't see because of the sand," said Master Sgt. Bryan Strong, 37, of McCleary, Wash., the senior enlisted Marine in charge of New River Air Station's air traffic control facility.

"It was like a wall of sand from the movie Scorpion King," said Gunnery Sgt. Charles Crampton, 34, an air traffic control facility watch officer from Lancaster, Calif., assigned to New River Air Station.

Strong remembers two AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter gunships that had to make an emergency landing during a sandstorm in conditions that would close most airports.

The Cobra pilots were flying together, running short of fuel and couldn't even see each other, let alone the airfield.

"The storms went up to 10,000 feet, so you couldn't just rise over them," said Gunnery Sgt. Riley Tennyson, 35, a radar chief from Cincinnati, Ohio, assigned to New River Air Station's air traffic control facility. "It's rare in the states to get someone with an in-flight emergency."

Strong had to talk them down, relying on his radar to keep them separated.

"We took over all air traffic control for Kuwait for four days straight," said Gunnery Sgt. Jack Sizemore, 35, an air traffic control tower chief at New River Air Station.

"I saw more planes in the sky than I have ever seen," said Crampton, of West Alexandria, Ohio. "We were so busy that you couldn't remember your name."

Despite the rapid pace and dangerous conditions, these air traffic controllers said that there was a surprising calm when talking to the pilots.

"A pilot could be on fire or have an Iraqi climbing on their aircraft and you'd never know it," Crampton said. "(I remember) a female A-10 pilot who said she had hydraulic failure. It turned out that she was pretty shot up."

Another difficulty was identifying a U.S. aircraft that was trying to hide from the enemy and then giving the pilot directions back to the airfield.

"We had a C-130 in Iraq that lost all electrical power, but his propellers were still spinning," Strong said. "He was flying by compass on flashlight and had to fly around Al Kut to avoid enemy fire."

The pilot thought that he was to the west of their airfield, but he was actually a couple of hundred miles to the east, so controllers had to talk the pilot home on a complicated route, Strong said.

Despite the challenges, the air traffic controllers were popular with other troops because they were the ones who helped bring in supplies and emergency fire on Iraqi positions. They also diverted a supply flight to bring back wounded.

"There is a difference between air traffic control in combat and here," Strong said.

"In combat you are not operating in a controlled air space. Here the (Federal Aviation Administration) has structure, but when a government stops running it's chaos. You'll see more things in three to four days there than you will ever experience here. Just about every aircraft we talked to needed help."

Throughout the fray and the busy tempo of operations, the pilots in combat tended to be more polite than they were at home.

"In the states some pilots get complacent and some even cut off the guy in front of them," Crampton said. "But when we put them on hold (in Kuwait and Iraq) they knew there's an aircraft on the strip waiting to put bombs on target."

Moving from one airfield to the next in a convoy through Iraqi towns was the most nerve-wracking experience for some, while for others the security around their own airfield weighed heavily on their minds.

"Sometimes the Iraqis were literally being chased out of one end of the airport and we were setting up in the other end," Strong said.

In April alone, they handled 7,038 missions with 151 in flight emergencies, something they say they wouldn't see in 20 years at New River Air Station.

"It was like dropping a big bag of marbles in a funnel," Tennyson said, "and trying to keep them apart as they go down."

Contact Eric Steinkopff at or 353-1171, Ext. 236.