Team Vance skies in good hands with RSUs

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt Michael Creedon
  • 8th Flying Training Squadron
In the pre-dawn darkness while much of Oklahoma still sleeps, instructors and students alike from the Team Vance flying training squadrons are already hard at work preparing for another day of training.
Students prepare the morning's briefs while instructors see to administrative duties. On the flight line, aircraft are inspected prior to their first flights. The control tower crews check their radios, while sweeps of the runways are performed to ensure safety.
Amidst all of this activity however, one crew has already briefed their mission and driven an hour north, where they are setting up operations. Before the day is over, this crew and others like it will see hundreds of takeoffs and landings, all performed under the safety of their watchful eyes. These are the crews of Team Vance's runway supervisory units, or RSUs, responsible for the safe conduct of pattern operations for T-37s and T-38s.
Vance Air Force Base pattern operations are almost exclusively an RSU affair. While the control tower controls the field, it is the RSUs who conduct aircraft traffic pattern operations on the inside and outside runways.
An hour's drive to the north, near the Great Salt Plains, another RSU oversees the pattern at Kegelman Auxiliary Field, used by T-37s to relieve Team Vance of some of the pressure that such a large number of aircraft create on the controlling crews. From inside their glass and steel buildings perched near the end of each runway, the crew of an RSU gives permission for aircraft to takeoff, land or perform a variety of patterns, carefully balancing the needs of training with their first priority, safety. It can be a delicate and busy affair, as a typical day may bring more than 1,000 takeoffs and landings. If the patterns are performed well, pilots will hardly hear the RSU at all. However, at times the RSU is saturated with aircraft in the pattern and issues a variety of commands to those aircraft at different points to change the way the overall traffic flow is progressing. To the casual observer, this can seem chaotic at best; to the trained eye, however, it is a carefully choreographed ballet of aluminum and plastic, moving at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour.
RSU crews are composed of pilots from the 8th, 33rd, 25th and 5th Flying Training Squadrons who have a minimum of three months on station. Each crew typically consists of four people; a controller, who is the overall responsible officer for the RSU; an observer, who confirms the pattern is clear of any conflicts; and a spotter and recorder team consisting of students who confirm that aircraft have the proper configuration (landing gear extended, flap settings, etc.) and record each tail number and any comments the controller or observer issue to each aircraft. However, only a two-man rated pilot crew operates the Kegelman RSU; the spotter and recorder roles are filled by the controller and observer, respectively. Each individual is carefully trained in the assigned duties and well versed in pattern procedures as well as radio procedures before being allowed to perform their duties for the first time. Even then however, an instructor will be nearby to supervise the first few shifts. Once trained, a controller or observer can expect to pull one 4- to 6-hour shift each week. The shifts can be relatively slow on days when the weather restricts flying, or extremely busy with over 400 takeoffs, landings or low approaches -- almost two per minute. Multiply that number three times -- once for each RSU operating simultaneously -- and it's clear that Vance AFB is one of the busiest airfields in the world. It's also a testament to the outstanding safety record upheld by the RSU crews.
"It can get extremely busy during a mid-day shift," said Capt Jeremy Seals, an experienced controller. "When there are many planes in the pattern, it's vital that crews fly as close to the regulations as possible."
At the heart of the RSU's ability to control a busy pattern is a keen understanding of radio and pattern procedures shared by the crews both in the air and on the ground. Pattern procedures are stringent and designed to maximize the number of planes that can safely occupy the pattern at any given time, spelling out precise airspeeds and altitudes to be obeyed by all. Each aircraft is also expected to identify itself by callsign, position and sometimes configuration at mandatory reporting points in each pattern. These radio calls give the RSU and others in the pattern a mental picture of where each aircraft is, and what it intends to do. For each radio call made in the pattern, there is a specific example to follow in the regulations -- there can be no "winging it" when 10 other pilots are trying to talk on the radio as well. Once an aircraft identifies its position, the controller can issue commands to each aircraft to ensure proper size and spacing in the pattern, preventing any conflicts. Additionally, the RSU will command aircraft to go around or change its intentions from a pattern that appears unsafe or poorly performed. As each controller and observer are seasoned pilots in the aircraft being controlled, they also serve to assist any aircraft in distress, from offering advice to calling for emergency vehicles to confirming that a plane's gear is down before it lands. For a student flying his or her first solo mission in a busy pattern, the RSU can be a vital asset to a safe return when the unexpected happens.
Moreover, the RSU also provides critiques of each student's performance while in the pattern. The controller or observer note any trends or mistakes in the student's flying, while the recorder makes notes of those mistakes on a form known as a 355. At the completion of each day, the forms are brought to a central point for distribution to the flights, where the students make note of their mistakes during the morning's formal brief. Among the most frequent mistakes are improper radio transmissions, or IRTs; RSU crews place a special emphasis on timely and accurate radio transmissions due to their importance to safety in the pattern. It's no surprise, then, that the RSU is a quiet place when the pattern gets busy, as any conversation quickly dies when the radio comes to life.
With the introduction of the T-6 to Team Vance, the role and standard procedures of the RSU will change, but only slightly. And while Vance AFB upgrades its RSU's capabilities, erecting new state of the art steel and glass buildings at Kegelman, the heart of the operation will always be safety, regardless of the aircraft being flown or the technology used to control aircraft from the ground. That safety will likely be provided by a controller, observer and student team, carefully scanning the skies and listening to the radio.