Only a few air forces around the world have an airborne controller squadron, responsible for air traffic control while airborne. The Israeli Air Force and its Italian counterpart are two of these air forces. Israeli Air Force airborne controllers recently headed out on a delegation to Italy – the first of its sort
The 122nd ("Nachshon") Squadron is one of the only squadrons in the world which performs air traffic control missions while airborne. Airborne traffic control is essentially identical to traffic control performed on the ground, but adds the ability to perform control missions over long distances. Two of the squadron's controllers recently arrived at a new destination: Italy. "The visit was especially significant for us – its goal was to see how our mission is performed in a different air force", said Maj. A', commander of the squadron's control department.
"The ATC (Air Traffic Control) Division's main mission is protecting Israel's skies", elaborated Maj. A'. "The squadron helps the ATC Unit detect hostile aircraft which are harder to detect from the ground". The "Nachshon Eitam" (Gulfstream G-550) aircraft operated by the squadron has several control stations inside it. One is for the mission commander and another is for the person in charge operating the aircraft's systems. These systems provide an exact aerial overview and allow for target detection in unfamiliar territory.
"Our mission is to ensure that no enemy aircraft can surprise one of our aircraft. In many events, we will be the first IAF aircraft in the area. "We need to know the system perfectly in order to make the best of it. I have to know how to operate every system, from radio and communications, through electricity and to cooling".
Age of the "Nachshon"
The "Nachshon Eitam" aircraft became operational in 2008 and has operated in long distances ever since. "We join every mission in the air force", said Maj. A'. In order to be an airborne controller at the 122nd ("Nachshon") Squadron, one has to have served at least two years as an air traffic controller in one of the force's ATC Units and have gained experience in the field of air traffic control.
An IAF airborne controller will participate in approximately 100 sorties in a year, while airborne controllers in most other air forces will only perform approximately 24. "You are constantly learning during your service in the squadron, undergoing instructions and participating in operational sorties", elaborated Maj. A'. "The use of airborne controllers is expected to grow in the next campaign, meaning we will operate in the front lines. This is an inseparable part of our service, and it's clear to us that this will be the first mission we perform during wartime".
Last December, Maj. A' and Maj. (Res') M' – another airborne controller from the squadron – were invited to the Italian Pratica di Mare AFB, located near Rome. Together, they visited the Italian 14º Stormo, which operates an aircraft similar to the Israeli "Nachshon Eitam". The delegation was a part of the cooperation between the Israeli Air Force and western militaries in NATO, one of them being Italy.
"The visit focused on mutual work with the Italians regarding optimization of their aircraft using our experience", emphasized Maj. A'. "It was interesting to see how they overcome topographical challenges, what their work looks like inside the cabin and how they communicate with the cockpit, plan the mission and use the systems".
This was the "Nachshon" Division's first cooperation with the Italian Air Force. "During our first days in Italy, we mainly dealt with understanding air traffic control in the Italian Air Force. We tried to see how we could help using our knowledge", explained Maj. A'. "It was important for us to learn how they operate, so we flew a sortie together in a simulator similar to the one we use in Israel. Alongside our Italian colleagues, we managed to optimize use of the simulator".
During the visit to Italy, the crews first experienced the operation of air traffic control in foreign countries. "While we have the ability to fly by ourselves and perform exclusive missions, the Italian controllers are always part of a mission", said Maj. A'. "They relay data to forces on the ground and receive data from forces on the ground. The advantage in the Israeli airborne controllers' independence is flexibility. We can fly anywhere in the world and complete our mission without any contact with anyone on the ground".
As part of their joint training, the airborne controllers performed an air traffic control scenario over a river in northern Italy. Furthermore, the controllers performed a scenario which was especially unique for the Israeli crew, seeing as the topography in the area was significantly different to the topography in Israel. While most of the flights in Israel occur over water, flight in Italy mostly occurs over mountainous terrain. In addition, the controllers in Italy are usually older than their Israeli counterparts, having performed missions in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
The mission was deemed successful by the participants, and the hosts from the 14º Stormo even expressed their will to visit Israel. The Italians stated that they would be interested in participating in the next "Blue Flag" exercise to be held in Uvda AFB, and that they would be pleased to continue cooperation with the 102nd ("Flying Tiger") Squadron, which operates the Italian "Lavi" (M-346) aircraft. "The Italians may be different in their modes of operation but their Middle Eastern character is the same as ours", concluded Maj. A'. "The Italian Air Force is incredibly professional, and our cooperation will continue to grow. The Italians have amazing air traffic control systems and I'm sure they will optimize their use".