VOLK FIELD AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Wis. - When a fire struck the Chicago Air Traffic Control Center on Sept. 26, Air National Guard air traffic control Airmen from Volk Field Air National Guard Base in Camp Douglas, Wisconsin, were called into action to keep planes in the air.
The Chicago center reopened on Monday, but the Wisconsin Airmen who pitched in won’t soon forget their mission.
“It was about 6:30 in the morning and we were getting ready to open the tower here but we couldn’t get a hold of the Chicago Center,” said Chief Master Sgt. Wayne “Buck” Reynolds, Combat Readiness Training Center air traffic manager.
Reynolds eventually got in touch with the Minneapolis ATC Center where he was informed there was a fire at the Chicago Center and that they would not be opening. Following a morning of trying to figure out whether or not Volk could open its airspace, Reynolds got on a conference call where he was given the go-ahead from the Federal Aviation Administration to open up the airspace.
“I got on that conference call and immediately indicated that Volk is willing and ready to support in any way we can,” Reynolds said. “They immediately said to open our airspace and then they asked if we could take up to 15,000 feet.”
Volk usually covers up to 10,000 feet but was willing and ready to take on the extra altitude. “Then FAA asked us how late we could stay,” Reynolds said. “Well, because of our crew limits, the longest a controller can work in a day is 10 hours, so we were able to work until 6 p.m. that night. By that evening I was in communication with FAA and they asked if we could open on the weekend.”
The Volk ATC center is usually closed on weekends, but Reynolds indicated they could be open both Saturday and Sunday for 10 hour shifts each day.
“There was a lot of volunteerism,” Reynolds said. “We didn’t have people on the schedule for that weekend but they volunteered right away and said, ‘just tell me when you need me here.’”
That level of commitment was no surprise to Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, the Wisconsin adjutant general.
“This is a perfect example of how Guard skills can be used to assist civil authorities in the event of a state or national crisis,” Dunbar said. “Not only were the necessary assets available, but the willingness of our Air National Guard members to step up and do what was needed speaks volumes about the character and selfless service of our Citizen-Airmen.
“This is also a great example of how the National Guard can support another agency for continuity of operations” or COOP, Dunbar continued. “In this case, we partnered with the FAA to assist them in their important and critical role to our nation.”
On Saturday, the FAA asked Reynolds what he would need from them to stay open for 16 hours a day. He requested six controllers.
Early on in the conversation, Reynolds chose Master Sgt. Kenneth Evans and Tech. Sgt. Gabriel Torres, both of whom are traditional CRTC ATC Airmen who also work at the Chicago Center as ATC specialists, to support the mission.
According to Torres, he was waiting for that call.
“When I first heard about the events, I immediately wondered whether or not they’d need us up at Volk to help out,” Torres said. “I got the call from Chief Reynolds on Saturday asking if Ken and I would be willing to come up. I said, ‘of course, anything to help out.’”
Evans and Torres’ knowledge of the systems and airspace at Volk made them an ideal solution. “These traditional Airmen dropped their headsets down there, and came here, picked them up, plugged in and started controlling,” Reynolds said.
William Wills also came up from the Chicago Center. He was previously a traditional Airman from the CRTC ATC, so he was another ideal choice for Reynolds.
The additional FAA ATCs - Jeff McCluskey, Steve McGreevy and Glenn Albanese - happen to work Volk’s airspace from Chicago.
“When we close at night, we give the airspace back to the north area of the Chicago Center,” Reynolds said. “Those controllers are already familiar with the frequencies and instrument approach procedures into the airport and all the surrounding facilities - so it made a lot of sense to have controllers from that area come up.”
All six of them arrived on Sunday, and all six of them were trained, certified, and up and running by Monday.
“We basically formulated a specialized training program for them - a certification process just to make sure they were able to work on our equipment and work the airspace,” Reynolds said. “Every one of them checked out very quickly. Within a day we had all six of them certified and ready to control.”
Even though Torres hopes no one sees a situation like this again, he’s found the experience exciting.
“The mixture between the FAA traffic and the Volk traffic is the coolest thing about it,” Torres said. “The first time I talked to a Delta here it was a little weird because its Volk approach, and we don’t talk to Deltas here. Being able to do both jobs melded together has been an amazing experience.”
The Volk Field CRTC ATC radar approach control will be up and running from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week until Oct. 13, FAAs estimated return date for normal operations. Until then, they’ll be continuing operations.
“We’ve worked more traffic in eight days than we typically do in a month,” Reynolds said. “It’s been a challenge working more traffic manually - but we like challenges. I think everyone feels accomplished.”
Investigators determined the fire was set, and a man who was an FAA contractor is charged with one felony count of destruction of aircraft facilities, and, if convicted, faces a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.