SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
Since most Air Force air traffic control tower operations around the world are performed on Air Force air bases, English is the language spoken.
However, there are always exceptions, and Soto Cano Air Base is one of them.
Because Joint Task Force-Bravo is a guest on this Honduran air force base, the Air Force is required to provide tower controllers here by their ability to speak Spanish fluently.
According to Air Force Chief Master Sgt. William Crow, Air Force Personnel Center functional manager for the air traffic control career field, said the only other Air Force ATC requirements for speaking languages other than English are Moron air force base, Spain, (Spanish) and two liaison positions in Paris, France, that require French language proficiency.
For Air Force Staff Sgt. Michael Owen, an air traffic controller with two years in the Soto Cano Air Base tower, working here is a natural fit. "My mother is Nicaraguan, so I grew up speaking Spanish," he said.
Sergeant Owen said the majority of all requests coming through the tower are in Spanish and that without fluent use of the language, he couldn't do his job. "There's always someone needing to drive out on the flight line or make repairs to equipment, and they are mostly Hondurans, so the need for speaking Spanish is important," he said. "Being able to speak the language has enabled the Air Force fill this unique position and I feel lucky to have met the requirements and be able to volunteer to fill the position."
As a tower controller here, Sergeant Owen works daily in a combined multi-national military environment. One of his counter-parts in the tower, Honduran air force Sgt. 2nd Class Gerardo Antonio Machado-Ortega, who doesn't speak English, said because the Air Force fills the positions with Spanish-speaking Airmen, Honduran and U.S. work together easily get the job done. "If they didn't speak fluent Spanish, the job would be very challenging," he said. "Few of us (Honduran air force controllers) know English very well, so we're expecting our counterparts to be able to know the language well," he said.
Chief Crow said finding Airmen like Sergeant Owen isn't as easy as it seems because there is a very small pool of individuals who possess the required Spanish language skills.
"All control tower positions require the member to have a watch supervisor Special Experience Identifier, be an E-5 or above, and meet minimum language requirements for reading, listening and speaking Spanish," he said. "Add to that the requirement for the 7-skill level in a chronic critical career-field and it becomes quite difficult to find someone to fill the requirement."
Chief Crow said the Air Force is able to supplement the requirement by sending air traffic control Airmen scoring 95 on the Defense Language Aptitude Battery examination to the Defense Language Institute for basic Spanish language skills.
To find Airmen meeting the requirements, Chief Crow advertises the Soto Cano positions via Enlisted Quarterly Assignments Listing Plus, the system designed to supplement the Enlisted Quarterly Assignments Listing system by advertising special assignments.
Senior Master Sgt. Vance Kondon, airfield operations superintendent, said for most of the Spanish speaking controllers, there is an understanding that they are welcome here for as long as they want to be here.
"We are an extremely limited asset and identifying replacements proves to be very difficult nearly every assignment cycle," he said. "So if we have controllers that desire to stay here, we do all we can to make that happen, and AFPC normally concurs unless there are extenuating circumstances."
Sergeant Kondon said most of the tower controllers here enjoy the daily interaction with the Honduran air force, the diversity of the Honduran and JTF-Bravo mission here, and especially the ability to be an integral part of a team that can accept cargo and aircraft used in humanitarian efforts throughout Central and South America. "Our job here is extremely gratifying when we are able to support and meet the needs of those who suffer natural disasters such as last year's earthquake in Peru and Hurricane Felix in Nicaragua."