Learning the Forward Air Controller’s Art

By By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor | July 1, 2011
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My guide for the day was Maj. Rich Ongaro, an experienced British Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC) with several operational tours already to his credit. His callsign was Widow 16. We had left NAS El Centro when it was still dark together with three student Close Combat Air (CAA) controllers who were honing their skills in the Arizona desert. The main difference between a JTAC and a CAA controller is that the JTACs are qualified to control fixed-wing fast air support, virtually all air support in fact, while CCAs are limited to helicopters only. After driving for a few hours we arrived at the location that Ongaro had visited a couple of days previously. This was a small, spread out community of buildings, farm sheds, shacks and other assorted structures typical of the area, all adjacent to a herring bone unpaved road structure that was connected to the main road through the valley at one end. Three miles the other way the community frayed out into foothills.

JTAC Major Rich Ongaro looks over the target area with Apache Longbow arriving on scene.

Ongaro had selected a vantage point for us on a ridgeline that overlooked the main road junction, but that had an excellent view of virtually the whole of the community. Today’s task for the CCA controllers was to work with Apache Longbow and Lynx Mk 9 crews to identify an increasingly difficult series of locations. As the training was for the benefit of both parties, the CCAs and the aircrews, the first few locations tended to be individual buildings in the near to mid-range that the aircrews could also find reasonably easily.


Under Organo’s instruction, main reference points were identified then units of measure (distances on the ground) became common currency between the CAAs and the aircrews in order to establish distances. This is a basic and fundamental requirement in any ground-to-air relationship. The ground controller has one view from his position that, unlike the helicopter, remains relatively static. However the aircraft, if operating tactically, will be constantly changing height, direction and location in the sky to avoid being detected by the enemy and attracting ground fire. The aircrew may also be using sensor systems if they really do need to stand off the target while confirming its location.

Lessons are learned quickly. The derision received from the air after an initial comment to “look beyond the large square building with a flat roof” was only made once. It was soon clear that the CAAs were thinking less about the individual features of each target building or location, and more about specific units of measure and obvious features that were recognizable from the air: Y junction, cross-roads, L-shaped buildings. Colors too, unless extremely obvious (or if the aircraft is equipped with a color sensor), are not necessarily a guide for target location (unless specifically market by colored smoke placed on the target deliberately). Throughout the day the targets become harder and harder to pinpoint: buildings to outbuildings, to cars on the road, to small isolated buildings, to third bush from the tree in the middle of nowhere. Using their units of measure, targets that would have initially seemed impossible to describe to straining eyes circling high above, sometimes kilometers away, suddenly seemed all too possible.

But this was still Arizona, sure on a hot day, but with a hide set up to keep us out of the sun when the aircraft were not overhead, and with plenty of water and food near to hand. This was not during the middle of an operation in Afghanistan, where the CCA is constantly moving location, potentially under fire, tired and thirsty and with smoke, dust and haze combining to make an observation from the air very difficult. The techniques learned here would pay dividends in months to come for sure.

Please click here to read Andrew Drwiega's feature story: "British Apaches Over Arizona."

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