Airman overcomes barrier, guards the sky

Senior Airman Jonell Sanchez, an air traffic controller assigned to the 28th Operations Support Squadron, trains in a simulation at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Jan. 25, 2017. The training involves sending beacon codes for Ellsworth approach while the radar system is “down.” (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Donald C. Knechtel)

Senior Airman Jonell Sanchez, an air traffic controller assigned to the 28th Operations Support Squadron, trains in a simulation at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Jan. 25, 2017. The training involves sending beacon codes for Ellsworth approach while the radar system is “down.” (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Donald C. Knechtel)

Senior Airman Jonell Sanchez, an air traffic controller assigned to the 28th Operations Support Squadron, transfers beacon codes during a training simulation at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Jan. 25, 2017. Air traffic controllers maintain a safe environment for pilots by providing safety alerts and managing the flow of aircraft in and out of airspace. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Airman 1st Class Donald C. Knechtel)

Senior Airman Jonell Sanchez, an air traffic controller assigned to the 28th Operations Support Squadron, transfers beacon codes during a training simulation at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Jan. 25, 2017. Air traffic controllers maintain a safe environment for pilots by providing safety alerts and managing the flow of aircraft in and out of airspace. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Airman 1st Class Donald C. Knechtel)

Senior Airman Jonell Sanchez, an air traffic controller assigned to the 28th Operations Support Squadron, transfers beacon codes during a training simulation at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Jan. 25, 2017. The Ellsworth approach display shows aircraft entering the airspace and allows the controllers to communicate with the pilots. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Donald C. Knechtel)

Senior Airman Jonell Sanchez, an air traffic controller assigned to the 28th Operations Support Squadron, transfers beacon codes during a training simulation at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Jan. 25, 2017. The Ellsworth approach display shows aircraft entering the airspace and allows the controllers to communicate with the pilots. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Donald C. Knechtel)

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. --

Aircraft take to the air, navigating the highways of the sky among the birds and the breeze to reach their destination. These aviators rely on air traffic controllers to guide them safely and accurately through the open blue above.

The main service air traffic controllers provide is to maintain a safe environment for the pilots. This is accomplished by ensuring separation for the pilots, safety alerts and managing the flow of aircraft in and out of the airspace.

According to Master Sgt. Roy Graul, the radar force control chief controller assigned to the 28th OSS, the squadron delivers their service for the base, Rapid City Regional, Sturgis, Spearfish, Custer County and Wall and are the Air Force’s collocated facility, more than 265 miles away up in North Dakota for Minot Air Force Base and all the additional air ports in the area.

One of these controllers, Senior Airman Jonell Sanchez, assigned to the 28th Operations Support Squadron, fills a crucial role. However, his journey to where he is now was no walk on the beach. Well, it started on one.

Born and raised in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, he spent his time on the beach and fixing up old “jalopies” on his home island. Working as a mechanic he longed for something more, yearning for independence from his current situation. He followed in the footsteps of his father, a 32-year veteran of the Air National Guard.

“I wanted to enlist because of my dad,” Sanchez said. “My dad [a chief in the guard] had always wanted to go active and be an air traffic controller but was unable to, so I did some research in it and it appealed to me. I decided it was what I would do.”

Once enlisted, Sanchez went into training to become an air traffic controller. Due to the amount of material to study and memorize, he endured a long and stressful start.

“[Technical training school] for this career field has a 21 percent drop-out rate, and an additional 32 percent rate at an Airman’s first duty station,” Graul said. “That’s a 53 percent drop-out rate all together; Sanchez had an additional challenge to overcome, since English isn’t his first language.”

Once Sanchez had arrived on station, Graul recognized he was struggling because of the language barrier and had him enroll in a language course.

“The language barrier was challenging, but you just have to adapt to everything,” Sanchez explained.  “I was good with my performance and had no other problems, so they had me take a speech class for two months. I came back to finish up my training.”

After completing his class, he came back to work, more confident and eager to continue pursuing his dream.

“He was motivated and showed significant improvement,” Graul said. “It was a rewarding experience for not just him, but us as well.”

Graul explained when you see someone struggle and work so hard to overcome adversities, you just want to see them succeed.

“It is incredibly hard to get qualified in this career, 53 is a big percentage of drop outs for a career field,” Graul stated. “Overcoming the difficulties of both a personal barrier and the job itself is simply outstanding, we are all proud of him.”

Though it took him longer than most to finish his training, Sanchez fulfilled his goal of following in his father’s footsteps, even his old man’s dreams.

“It took me around a year to get fully trained because of the barrier but I made it,” Sanchez said. “I really like the job, the leadership is great and I feel accomplished knowing I have a good future ahead of me because of it; it makes me proud.”