TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, OKLAHOMA —
Tinker’s Airfield is manned at all times, no matter the holiday or weather conditions. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, there are at least two people sitting behind the desk overseeing Airfield Management Operations; better known as “Base Ops.”
As one of the busiest Airfields, Tinker is the only Air Force Materiel Command base with intersecting runways. Mission and operationally, the days are always jam-packed and constantly changing. There is no day that is the same as another. From controlling the flow of aircraft, fuel trucks and maintainers, to communicating with the control tower and accommodating diverts, the pace is steady. The workload in the morning may look drastically different from the workload at the end.
Until Oct. 1, 2017 the Airfield was managed solely by civilians. In Tinker’s 75 years, 14 civilians were responsible for creating and maintaining a safe and effective environment for aircraft. That changed when the Air Force decided to convert three of those civil service positions to military positions.
Airfield Manager Marc Bradley explained the implementation affecting Air Force Materiel Command and the direct impact to Tinker Air Force Base.
“We have a regulation telling us how many personnel we need to maintain the airfield 24/7/365. The number for Tinker Air Force Base is 14,” he said. “The number varies for all bases, but we have three appropriated positions for military and the rest are civil service. This conversion to military was necessary for the Air Force to prepare more military members for overseas deployments in Airfield Management.
Prior to the conversion, the entire civilian force manning the Airfield had experience or aviation knowledge, which would change when Airmen would come on board. So, three of the 14 who are completely qualified were replaced with Airmen straight out of Technical School. Then, a year of training is required for the Airmen to be upgraded to be an independent, able-bodied member in Airfield Management. The Air Force requires the military to receive training by increments of time, rather than the civilian workforce who can move up and work immediately once they are trained.
The conversion occurred in October 2017, but bodies didn’t come until November. Airman 1st Class Dannion Phillips arrived just after Thanksgiving. Airman Phillips, who was a bartender working for tips before he joined the Air Force last summer, is awestruck at the opportunity in front of him and the experience he’s gained in the five months since his arrival.
“I’m from southern Mississippi originally, but moved here from Louisiana. I had no idea what to expect, but I did actually have Airfield Management as a possible career field, so it’s cool this is where I get to start my Air Force career,” Phillips said. “Something we do that which a lot of people don’t know about is responding to in-flight emergencies. We’re a key point in the process and disseminating information to agencies across the base. It’s more than just managing departures and arrivals, that’s for sure.”
Consider the urgency of ensuring an in-flight emergency doesn’t lead to a subsequent emergency on the runway. If the B-1, for example, were to leak hydraulic fluid, that could cause other hazards with fighter aircraft who are trying to take off or land. The slickness could affect those aircraft, so Airfield Management is responsible for making sure the emergency is taken care of and the runway is clear.
Airman 1st Class Casey Stephenson, who was the second Airman to join Phillips, added Tinker’s role as a refuge base is a large factor many aren’t aware of. Both arrived in November, just weeks apart from one another.
“As a refuge base, if there are aircraft threatened by hurricanes, they come here,” Stephenson said. “There’s creativity involved with parking and taxiways, and sometimes means there will be alternate paths or construction requiring us to move things around. It can be a logistics, real-time data decision.”
Oklahoma, which infamously can experience four seasons and any kind of weather in one day, can create numerous incidents in which the real-time decisions are tested. Ice or snow, for example, which doesn’t limit itself to winter months, greatly affects runways and the aircraft arriving or departing. Using an Airfield Friction Meter or decelerometer, Airfield Management will purposely slip and slide on the runways and use math calculations to determine the extent of what an aircraft could experience.
Stephenson, who hails from New York, was in pharmacy school prior to joining the Air Force last summer. With plans to have tuition assistance through serving, Stephenson thought the obvious career path would be in pharmacy or medicine. Airfield Management wasn’t on the list.
“I never would have guessed this career path would have been where I would end up, but so far I’m really enjoying it. Tinker is an exciting place and I’m lucky to have this as my first duty station. One of my favorite parts is all of the different kinds of aircraft that come through. There are some places that deal strictly with cargo planes, but we have a wide variety we house and work with and that’s pretty cool.”
Learning the characteristics of each aircraft is tedious, too. Detecting the size, capacity and physical appearance of an aircraft is one thing, but Base Operations also know which aircraft leave different kinds of foreign object debris normally called FOD, which can be damaging to the runway as well as other aircraft. FOD checks are regular tasks. Snakes, turtles, coyotes, birds, cracks in concrete, wallets, laptops – they have seen it all. Stephenson, who works swing-shifts, was initiated, if you will, when he was doing FOD checks with his trainer. He remembers scooping up his first flattened feline which was found on the runway.
As with any change, the airfield experienced both benefits and constraints when their workforce changed. Nevertheless, the mission remained paramount to any habitual or personnel adjustments. First line supervisor Carmelo Juarez said regardless of the manpower or resources, the mission never changes.
“A benefit to having active duty join our team is it gets us back into a training environment. Most civilians who are hired have been previously qualified and only complete local training requirements. With active duty, there are specific time and training requirements that must be met,” Juarez said. “Our training program along with our individual knowledge will improve as a result of continuous training by our active duty members taking place in the work center.”
Bringing Airmen on board also means the perspective broadens. If you added up the experience of those working in Base Operations, Bradley said it’d total to more than 200 years. There’s a lot of experience there. When you add in wide-eyed Airmen straight from Tech. School, a fresh set of eyes sees and may assess situations differently.
“Once certified, an A1C can make a command decision affecting the whole base. They coordinate through us, but they are the ones with eyes on it and have that authority. All of that comes with experience, but it’s another uniqueness to this job,” Bradley said.
Conversely, challenges do present themselves but instead of viewing them as negative constraints, the team looks at them as ways to approach or evaluate tasks contrarily.
“Consider the three military that we have,” Bradley said. “They could be deployed at any given time and so that puts us down in manpower. Regardless, we still have to cover those shifts. At the same time, the experience Airmen gain at Tinker is unique in that we have a lot of different aircraft activity. They’ll get a lot of exposure and valuable training here.”
Tinker, home to five different wings, is distinctive in that the Airfield manages four other wings. Though the 72nd Air Base Wing owns the Airfield, they do not own any of the flying assets. With most deployed locations operating under multiple wings and missions, manning the airfield at Tinker is ideal for that preparation. The varying dynamics sets Tinker apart from other installations, which requires a constant balance of accomplishing the respective missions.
“Multitasking and prioritizing, adjusting to the forever changing prioritization, are essential to this job. A lot of this job comes with experience, but the ability to multitask is key,” Bradley said. “Everything in aviation is ‘what if.’ There is always potential that we have to consider. So that thought process has to be in play, too.”
The role of Airfield Management comes with heavy responsibility, regardless if you’re an Airman or a seasoned-vet civilian. But for the first-term Airmen who’ve recently joined the Bldg. 240 team, it’s a dream.
“This is one of the best jobs in the Air Force, hands down,” Phillips said. “And, this is only the beginning for us.”