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Radar controllers can see it all at Cannon

A radar control screen monitors airplane activity on Friday in the radar control room at Cannon Air Force Base. (CNJ staff photo by Eric Kluth)

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — F-16 fighter pilots twirl at jet speed, practicing dogfights and bombing runs. Private civilian pilots slowly move across the landscape in their propeller-driven planes. And all of their movements are carefully watched by a group of uniformed airmen huddled in a dark room across from the control tower at Cannon Air Force Base.

With no windows to look out, they can’t physically see the planes. However, their radar screens cover many miles around Cannon and allow the pilots to track anything that moves in their air anywhere near the base.

Or, for that matter, many things that move on the ground.

Airman Kelly Garcia pointed to a line of dots on the radar screen and said they represent cars on the road between Portales and Clovis. At other times, the radar shows trains moving. The Cannon radar system is so sensitive it can pick up a flight of birds.

For the radar controllers at Cannon, that job includes monitoring air traffic at five separate airports, including Clovis Municipal Airport and Portales Municipal Airport.

“To me, it’s the best job in the Air Force,” said Tech. Sgt. David Eckert. “Every day we come to work and every day is different. The controllers here are very proud of what we do — you have to learn a great deal to do this well.”

Radar controllers watch a variety of screens. Some are close-up views showing just the area immediately around Cannon to help guide pilots during their approaches, landings, and takeoffs. Others are distant radar showing hundreds of miles around Cannon. Still others provide a viewing level between the two.

All of that work is done using a radar system that dates back to the Korean War era.

“Although the basic technology for the radars is not new, we can pick up birds in the air,” Eckert said. “In an age when the government spends money for many things, there is no need to spend money on a system that works well.”

When things are going right in their air, the radar controller’s job is just to make sure planes aren’t headed for each other or entering dangerous airspace. It’s when things aren’t going right that Cannon’s controllers kick into high gear.

“We are a safety net for the pilots when all else fails,” Eckert said. “They are very good at what they do, but when something happens like the antennas being sheared off, they need some help and we’re here to help.”

That means the job of a radar controller fluctuates between routine and chaotic. When things are calm, Eckert said the controllers practice and discuss how they would respond to emergencies so they know how to respond when they happen.

When one of those emergencies happened March 12 — a small civilian plane trapped by bad weather had lost communications and couldn’t find Clovis Municipal Airport — Eckert and Garcia were both on duty and struggled to help the pilot land.

They ultimately requested and received permission to have the plane land at Cannon with its superior facilities.

“He was very pleased he had found someone who could help him land,” Garcia said. “We all felt wonderful when he finally got on the ground.”