Kingpin orchestrates airpower symphony over Iraq

  • Published
  • By Maj. Damien Pickart
  • 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Orchestrating the airpower symphony over Iraq are the Airmen of the 727th Expeditionary Air Control Squadron, better known as Kingpin, who turn non-stop air operations into ground forces' favorite tune -- the sound of jets prowling the skies overhead.

Currently manned by the Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., 728th ACS, the 727th EACS is responsible for controlling all aircraft operating inside Iraq's 277,000 square miles of airspace. As a testimony to how daunting that task can be, during its previous deployment here from May to September 2006, the Eglin based unit surveyed, identified and controlled more than 166,000 aircraft.

"Our 200 Airmen keep all airborne assets arranged and under control so ground forces get the air support they need," said Lt. Col. Frederick DeFranza, 727th EACS commander. "A pilot is concerned about one mission. My Airmen are concerned about every mission so troops on the ground never have to wonder if their insurance policy in the sky is good."

The heart of Kingpin's operations lies in several mobile Operation Modules; Conex-shaped trailers stuffed with an array of computers and communication equipment chilled to a frigid 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside each 'box,' enlisted surveillance and weapons directors and air weapons officers (AWO) chatter away in a language foreign to the untrained ear, simultaneously directing roughly 40 separate aircraft to multiple headings, altitudes and locations with the eventual goal of providing air support to ground forces.

"Thud 35 - approved 88 Alpha Sierra 12 to 15,000 - traffic stacked below you - surface to 10,000 - traffic stacked above 16 to 22,000 - elevator into your blocks and push tactical," rattles off Senior Airman Andrew Labadie, an enlisted weapons director.

To bring a semblance of order to the myriad of aircraft over Iraq, Kingpin divides the country's airspace into 'kill boxes,' referred to as the Common Grid Reference System. As aircraft launch and exit a ring of airspace surrounding military airfields, they are passed from the military air traffic controllers in the airfield tower and the Combined Enroute Radar Approach Control (CERAP) to the capable hands of Kingpin's controllers.

As new blips appear on dimly illuminated scopes, Kingpin assigns each to a block of airspace to conduct missions such as surveillance or close air support (CAS). Other aircraft are shuffled to mate up with tankers or committed to support time-sensitive missions such as troops in contact (TIC) with enemy forces.

Eyes dart from the scopes to a separate terminal that displays a classified version of a chat room. Snippets of information pop up as a Joint Terminal Air Controller embedded with ground forces punches in a TIC request for airpower and supporting organizations confirm and contribute other critical data. Kingpin controllers scan the Air Tasking Order, cross reference the radar scopes, and quickly determine the weapon configuration and fuel load of the nearest available aircraft. Within seconds, they've cleared the airspace and determined the ideal aircraft to assign to the unfolding drama on the ground.

"We're continuously developing a three-dimensional, real-time picture of the battlespace," said AWO Capt. Stefanie Emery. "Our Airmen build the safety net in the sky that pilots, aircrew and ground forces depend on. It's an incredible team effort."

"It gets a little hairy sometimes, but it's nothing the four of us can't handle," said Airman Labadie. "Working together in close quarters every day, it sometimes seems as if we can accurately anticipate what we're all going to think and do as a particular situation arises."

The Airmen's faces reflected in the scopes display a calm demeanor in spite of the intense tempo. Their cool judgment and quick decisions are the result of the thorough training that precedes every deployment. It also helps that 45 percent of Kingpin's current Airmen were here only four months ago; hardly time for their Balad-honed skills to grow rusty.

"This TDY has been better than the last because of how quick we've returned," said Senior Master Sergeant Scott Delveau, 727th EACS first sergeant. "Many of us just left in September, so the tempo is still fresh. It has made a difference in how seamlessly we picked up the baton Mountain Home's 726th ACS handed to us."

Success inside the chilled boxes hinges on the hard work of the miniature Air Force that operates within Kingpin's compound. With 27 different Air Force specialties, an EACS is a self-sustaining force. Its diverse ranks include operations, security forces, medics, intelligence, services, supply, satellite communications and an array of maintainers including vehicle, radio, radar, communications, aerospace ground equipment (AGE) and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), to name a few.

"Our unique composition and mobile nature allows us to pack up and deploy to austere locations," said Maj. Cooper Bowden, chief of maintenance. "The ingenuity and diverse skills of our maintainers and support personnel are the driving force that keeps Kingpin moving."

A stroll through the compound reveals Airmen changing humvee brakes, conducting communication component operational checks, diagnosing ailments in the clinic and even enjoying some downtime in the unit's fitness and recreation centers. These amenities support the Airmen whose job responsibilities often require them remaining on a short tether should the need arise for their invaluable skills.

"As important as it is for our controllers to direct aircraft in the skies, it's equally important to the Kingpin mission for an HVAC maintainer to repair an air conditioning system that keeps the controller's equipment operating properly," said Tech. Sgt. Josh Phillips, non-commissioned officer in charge of the AGE and HVAC maintenance shops.

Having deployed with the 728th ACS for all four of its OIF deployments since 2003, Sergeant Phillips makes sure his troops treat the equipment as if it were their own.

"We have some unique power and voltage requirements," he said. "We might operate outside the box, but the sharp Airmen maintaining our generators and cooling units know how critical they are to keeping those boxes humming. If we didn't do our job, our controllers couldn't do theirs and same for the operators in the sky. The food chain starts with these maintainers and we're proud of what we bring to the fight."

Well into this deployment, the Airmen of Eglin's 728th ACS are constantly looking for opportunities to improve future Airmen's deployments to the 727th EACS. While it enjoys the recreation and fitness centers christened by its predecessors, Kingpin's current occupants are looking to improve overall communications and situational awareness of the battlespace with a new Battle Command and Control center slated to open in November 2007. The center will co-locate the boxes, CERAP function and an Air Support Operations Center liaison to enhance communications and improve CAS response time.

"We know we'll be proudly sporting the Kingpin call sign in eight months, so we're starting the improvements now to reap the benefits when we return," said Colonel DeFranza. "Between the contributions of Mountain Home, Eglin and Hill AFB's 729th ACS, Kingpin and its mission are a work in progress each of us leaves a little better off than we inherited it."