From one mission to the next; installation and Airmen evolve

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Tiffany Del Oso
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

“… Runway 14R, wind 140 at 10, you are cleared to land,” 14-year-old Jacob Ritchie sat quietly at the window of his room in a nearby hotel overlooking the local airfield. The voices of distant air traffic controllers crackled over the radio directing pilots into the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in New Hampshire.

“I would spend hours listening to the controllers over the radio,” said now Senior Airman Jacob Ritchie, a 325th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control apprentice. “Every time we would go on vacation to New Hampshire, we would stay in the same hotel with a direct view of the airport, and I think that’s what initially sparked my passion for air traffic control.”

Ritchie’s passion for aviation continued to grow when he joined the U.S. Air Force in 2019. He accepted a contract as an F-22 Raptor crew chief and after graduating initial training, was assigned to none other than Tyndall Air Force Base’s own 43rd Fighter Generation Squadron, a tenant unit of the 325th Fighter Wing located at Eglin AFB, Florida.

Though aircraft maintenance wasn’t Ritchie’s first choice, he made himself at home with the 43rd FGS.

“He did not become soured or gain a distaste for what happened,” said Monica Ritchie, Jacob’s mother. “In fact, quite the opposite. He embraced what the Air Force gave him for a career, and he excelled as an award winning crew chief.”

Three years later as the 43rd FGS began transitioning their home base to Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, an opportunity to cross train into ATC presented itself.

“My leadership at the 43rd FGS was immediately on board with my decision to chase my dream and become a controller,” Jacob confirmed. “The only doubt I had when I decided to change my career was missing out on the experiences I could have with my friends moving up to Virginia.”

Jacob’s dream to become a controller overshadowed his doubts. He bid his friends goodbye and dove headfirst into the information-packed, three-month, Air Force ATC technical school at Keesler AFB, Mississippi.

“It’s all about your willingness to learn and apply what you’ve been taught,” Jacob said about the school. “I went in with the drive to become a controller, absorbing as much information as I could, since it was something I had been passionate about for years. I wanted to be nothing short of perfect.”

Though ATC school is known as one of the Air Force’s most difficult tech schools, he went fully prepared to give his all. Throughout the course he created full decks of flash cards and participated in every group study he could.
“It was a ton of information [for the class] to obtain in a small amount of time, bouncing coursework off of one another to reinforce our studies was necessary,” said Jacob. “I also found helping other Airmen who were struggling to be really beneficial to both of us.”

Ritchie earned academic excellence upon his graduation. His next step was finding out where the Air Force planned to send him next.

“After being at Eglin for the duration of my first enlistment, seeing that Tyndall was my assignment I was feeling slightly disappointed,” laughed Jacob. “But I love Florida and not many people get to say they live here in paradise. Also, with the airfield in front and the Gulf of Mexico behind you, you really can’t beat the view from the tower here at Tyndall.”

As the host of one of the Department of Defense’s largest air-to-air combat exercises, Checkered Flag, Tyndall’s mission of projecting unrivaled combat airpower for America may seem challenging to a new ATC Airman.

Tech. Sgt. Kelvin McLaughlin, 325th OSS ATC watch supervisor, explained newly minted ATC Airmen get a unique opportunity at Tyndall because of the 83rd Weapons Evaluation Group’s Weapons System Evaluation Program exercises. The 82nd Aerial Target Squadron also participates in each WSEP exercise by providing a plethora of drones, to include subscale and full-scale QF-16 aircraft. This requires a separate runway that most installation ATC towers do not get the chance to control.

Jacob stated the personnel and aircraft both Checkered Flag and WSEP bring to Tyndall are what he is most excited to experience.

“Now, as an ATC, I’ll have a different relationship to these exercises,” said Ritchie. “I will get to actually talk to the pilots and be a part of it, which is really a thrill in and out of the tower and what I dreamed of doing as a kid.”