USAF Combat Control – “First There”

This is the fifth post of this section (Military Special Forces Throughout the World) and I’m so excited!  First of all, I have never been in the military but I respect anyone who is active duty or is separated military.  I have always been awed by regular military; you know those gun-hoe GI Joe types who rush into a room filled with hostiles and blow the ever living crap out of everything?  Movies like Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), Commando (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Navy SEALS (Charlie Sheen), Delta Force (Chuck Norris) and Heatbreak Ridge (Clint Eastwood) come to mind.


It was only during recent years that I have actually started reading books about Special Forces and have personally met members of some of America’s elite Special Forces units that I have gained an absolute amazing respect for these men.  I say “men” because, as of yet in America, women are not allowed to enter into a Special Forces unit.  See my post: “Women in the Military: Should GI Jane Become a Reality?” to get a better picture of what I mean.

In the ensuing posts, I will give a profile of Special Forces groups throughout the world, describe their history and list a bunch of mind-blowing stuff they’ve done.

Egyptian Elite Unit 777

If you don’t know yet, Special Forces and Special Operations Forces are military components who are specially trained, drilled and educated to carry out un-traditional operations 1.  Special Forces began in the early part of the 1900s, with a large expansion during WWII.  This was a time when “every major army involved in the fighting” fashioned elite units who were loyal to special operations behind enemy lines.

Varying by country, Special Forces may execute some of these wicked, bad-to-the-bone ops: airborne missions, counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, foreign interior resistance, clandestine operations, targeted warfare, hostage recovery, high-value targets/man-hunting, surveillance/reconnaissance missions, mobility ops and untraditional combat.

Be ready to be educated and blown away by what you’re about to read…

Stacked: F-16, A-10, F-15s and F-22

Everyone knows about the US special operations forces.  The US Army has the Rangers, Delta and Green Berets, the Marines have Force Recon and Marine Raiders and the Navy has the SEALS.  When one thinks of the US Air Force, they picture the carpet bombing destruction of their long reaching bombers, the precision striking ability of their state of their art fighters or the ground attacking capability of their A-10 Thunderbolts.  Each one of these flying death machines can wreck havoc in the air or on the ground.  The modern B-52, with a crew of six, has seen more battles and has been commissioned in the military longer than any war plane in existence…ever!  The USAF has some of the latest technology and fly some of the most sophisticated, advanced fighters, bombers, tankers and cargo airplanes in the world.

However, in order to become a crew-member on an airplane, one usually has to be commissioned as an officer – and that comes with a lot of schooling, training and smarts.  For the rest of the airmen of the USAF, they become ground-crew, maintenance, auxiliary support, administrative specialists and other such jobs that keep their feet on the ground.  Although extremely important in their role to keep the airplanes in operating condition, these support staff are jokingly known to “fly desks”.

Unknown to most, there are two special groups of “airmen” who defy the stereotypical model of non-flying ground crew.  Pararescue (also called PJs) and the Combat Control Team are two unique special operations forces in the Air Force.  For this post, I will focus on the Combat Control Team.  These guys – also called CCTs – are specially trained forces who work along-side and support other better known special operations forces.  It takes an unbelievable measure of ability, physical toughness and bravery to succeed in some the Air Force’s most challenging operations.  CCTs are specially trained in a large spectrum of skills that include scuba diving, parachuting and even snowmobiling to gain control and implement combat support on missions all over the world 5.

USAF Combat Control Teams are special operations forces that fill the responsibility of a Pathfinder role.  Pathfinders first developed during WWI as a specially trained soldier who inserted or dropped into a position to set up and operate drop zones, pickup zones and helicopter landing sites for airborne operations, air resupply operations or other similar missions.  Combat Controllers carry on the Pathfinder tradition and are experts in areas such as conducting simultaneous air traffic control, fire support and command, control and communications, relay real-time battlefield information to commanders and manage GPS devices for targeting assault zones in clandestine surroundings usually found in war zones 1, 2, 5.

Combat Controllers are a part of the Special Tactics Squadrons and are a vitally important branch of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), which is the Air Force element of United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).  CCTs are usually deployed as a one-man attachment or assigned as a small team that are designated  to Army Green Berets, Army Rangers, Army Delta Force, Marine Force Recon, Marine Raiders and Navy SEALs to provide specialized and proficient air support logistics and communications effectiveness 3.

All CCTs are FAA-certified air traffic controllers and uphold their credentials during their entire career 1.  Many Combat Controllers are also certified and sustain efficiency as joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs).  This allows them to call in and manage air strikes, close air support and fire support during operations 4.  Out of the seven Air Force Cross Medals that were presented to airmen since the Global War on Terror which began in 2001, five have been given to Combat Controllers for exceptional valor and bravery in combat.

Here is a paragraph from Howard Wasdin’s book “SEAL Team Six” where he talks about working with CCTs.  Wasdin was a Navy SEAL Team Six sniper.  He spent 9 years as a SEAL and took part in Desert Storm and the battle of Mogadishu (Black Hawk Down):

“[CCTs are] particularly helpful to us in calling down death from above…the addition

Howard Wasdin

of a CCT carrying a radio on his back and calling for air support freed up a SEAL radioman to carry other mission-essential gear on his back and help with the door-kicking.  Although the Air Force CCTs and PJs were not as specialized in skills like door-kicking, they were experts in their fields – to a higher level than SEAL or Delta operators.  Integrating them into SEAL Team Six and Delta was one of the best moves JSOC ever made.  Although not held to as high a tactical standard (standards such as physical fitness remained the same) as SEALs, particularly for close-quarters combat training, they received Team Six’s Green Team training.  During my Green Team, although a CCT and PJ were among the four or five who failed, a CCT and a PJ passed.  The CCTs and PJs also rotated over to Delta Force for their training.  Then, after some time at home with their Air Force units, they rotated back and forth between Six and Delta again.” 28

Andrew “Big Andy” William Harvell, 26 years old, was killed on August 6, 2011

A CCT needs to think strategically, be faced with a problem and then make the best choice with what knowledge and resources they have.  The function of a Combat Controller is to be the air-to-ground contact between the pilot and special operators located on the ground.  For instance, if a SEAL team is pinned down from enemy fire coming from a ridge above them, the CCT that is embedded with them will call for air support from whatever assets they have at their disposal – an A-10, an F-16 or a C-130 Gunship for example.  A CCT might assist in detonating IEDs (road-side bombs) or they can help in launching artillery the next day or conduct a HAHO (High Altitude High Opening) jump trip.  They’re not only utilized as weapons or coms or EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) specialists.  They can be used in every situation they are called for and can change their tactics according to the situation.  There is a multitude of skills they must be proficient at and they are always in a state of training 7.  Because they usually embed with other special operations forces, they must be in top physical and mental shape in order to keep up with the best.

The CCT motto is “First There”.  Combat Controllers are the only special forces team that is air traffic control qualified.  They were some of the first forces to enter Afghanistan to set up the airfields 7.

As a CCT, they’re not always engaging an enemy.  CCTs deployed to Haiti after the earthquake to manage hundreds of flights in and out of the area.  Because of that, they were able to medevac wounded people and supplies out.  They also have the qualifications to fly or jump in to a disaster area to provide humanitarian aid 7.


A pathfinder of the 506th PIR, 101st Airborne Division, sets up his unit’s “Eureka” radio beacon in Germany in 1945. The beacon will guide C-47s in so that they can drop their paratroopers or, in this case; needed supplies with precision.

US Army Pathfinders officially began in 1943 during World War II.  The need for precise airdrops sprung up because of a few accidental occurrences during the airborne operation on Gela located in Sicily during the allied invasion. The 82nd Airborne Division carried out an airborne operation under cover of darkness on the outskirts of Gela.  Because of insufficient visible landmarks and 45 mph high-speed winds, two battalions landed 30 miles outside the official drop zone and a third landed over 55 miles away 8.  Despite the mistake and the space between the troops, they still successfully impeded the German counteroffensive.  This set the groundwork for the Ally amphibious invasion that later led to the Allies to take a foothold in southern Europe where they could launch aerial bombing missions into the heart of the Reichland 9.

General James M. Gavin

General James M. Gavin, Deputy Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, pioneered the Army Pathfinders to guarantee airborne assaults were more successful in directing the paratroopers to the selected drop zones.  These Pathfinders went ahead of the main attack forces into targeted zones and drop areas as a team in order to supply weather data and visible direction to incoming aircraft by utilizing various tools such as high-powered lights, flares and smoke pots, burning buckets of gas-soaked sand and the Eureka beacon 1, 4.  The Pathfinder squads were usually made up of eight to twelve soldiers with six additional soldiers to offer weapons support while they assembled gear and supplies to direct gliders and planes or signaled paratroopers to make their appointed drop zones.  Pathfinders were further used successfully during the Sicilian campaign.

Pathfinder Team 2, or “Chalk 17” (see number 17 beside the door), 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, poses with 096 and its crew (seated in the front row) on June 5, 1944, shortly before the Normandy Invasion

In the Normandy invasion, Pathfinders parachuted in before the main airborne assault forces and directed 13,000 paratroopers to their designated drop zones.  Pathfinders were also used during Operation Market Garden to defend several important bridges that were necessary for progressing Ally infantry troops.  In the Battle of the Bulge, pathfinders facilitated an air drop resupply for the 101st Airborne Division 10, 11.

The tasks of the Pathfinders in the Pacific theater during World War II varied somewhat from than their European equivalents and developed a number of military “firsts”.  During the Quebec Conference in 1943, President Roosevelt was inspired by British General Orde Wingate’s idea of a successful campaign in Burma with appropriate air support 12.  Encouraged by President FDR, the US Army Air Forces established the 5318th Air Unit to support the Chindits – a British India special forces group that was active in Burma and India in 1943 and 1944 during the Burma Campaign.  In March 1944, they were officially named the 1st Air Commando Group by General Hap Arnold.  Arnold designated Colonel John R. Alison and Colonel Philip Cochran as co-commanders of the Air Commando Group 13, 14.

Related image
Army troops load a jeep into a glider during a training exercise

During the Burma campaign, the Pathfinder’s roll was to drop in with gliders into open fields that had been chosen by commanders and make them ready for larger landings by transportation aircraft.  This special ground support prepared by the Pathfinders established a pivotal benefit to the success of the operation.  Within a span of three months, 600 missions by Dakota transport aircraft moved 9,000 troops, 1,300 pack animals and 245 tons of provisions to landing zones in Burma.  In January 1945, after the Burma road was restored, the Air Commandos were inactivated in preparation for the invasion of mainland Japan 14.

The term “Combat Control Team” comes from World War II where allied troop-carrier squadrons developed glider-borne teams called Combat Control Teams.  A Combat Control Team was made up of one glider pilot and four NCO technicians.  They used a jeep and a trailer-mounted radio to pass on vital intel to aircraft.  Their first mission was during Operation Varsity in 1945, when two teams with the 18th Airborne Corps infiltrated German lines.  They established forward airfields where they supported resupply operations and provided airfield control 15.

Modern Day Combat Controllers

According to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in 2004 about 85% of the air strikes in Operation Enduring Freedom had been called in by USAF Combat Controllers 4.  

CCTs directing in supplies from a table

Just 24 hours after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a team of CCTs from the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron stationed out of Hurlburt Field, Florida arrived in Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti.  About half an hour later, the CCTs gained control of air traffic responsibilities to permit humanitarian aircraft to land safely.  The Combat Controllers brought in over 2,500 aircraft without a single incident while they were comfortably seated at a card table using only their hand radios 16, 17!  Under their supervision, airplanes took off and landed every five minutes.  They brought in a total of over 4 million pounds of humanitarian aid 18.  Because of the efforts of his CCTs, team leader Chief Master Sergeant Tony Travis, was later acknowledged as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2010 18, 19.


Air Force Combat Controllers
Combat Controllers calling in an A-10 strafe run

In June 2014, USAF Combat Controllers were deployed to Iraq as part of the detachment of US military advisors in the military effort against the war on ISIS 20. Together, with the assistance of other US special operators, they assisted the Iraqi Army in fighting against the ISIS terrorists in northern Iraq.

General Bryan D. Brown, the previous commander of US Special Operations Command, stated in a May 2011 interview with the publication, The Year in Special Operations 2011-2012 Edition:

“During this kind of warfare [Global War on Terror] the USAF combat controller Image result for General Bryan D. Brown[CCT/TAC-P] guys really carried an incredible load.  During the opening days in Afghanistan, we deployed some SF teams without a CCT and the difference between those that had controllers and those that didn’t was dramatic.  Quite frankly no one wants to go to war without them.  They are admired, capable, and requested at a rate far greater than we could ever provide.  Their efforts were critical in the early days of [Operation Enduring Freedom] and still are.  Here is another force [whose] true impact on the battlefields around the world will never be known or appreciated.  They are absolutely phenomenal.” 21

CCT Heroes

Image result for Senior Airman Zachary RhynerSenior Airman Zachary Rhyner

Rhyner was the first living recipient of the Air Force Cross in the Global War on Terror, which he was awarded for his conduct in the Battle of Shok Valley on April 6, 2008 in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan 22.  During the battle he assisted in close air support and airstrikes that consisted of 4,570 cannon rounds, nine Hellfire missiles, 162 rockets, a dozen 500-pound bombs and one 2,000-pound bomb 23.  In addition to Rhyner’s award, nine Special Forces operators and one Combat Cameraman received the Silver Star 24.

Staff Sergeant Robert GutierrezImage result for Staff Sergeant Robert Gutierrez

In 2011, Gutierrez received the Air Force Cross for his part in a battle in Herat province, Afghanistan that took place on October 5, 2009.  After a bullet wound caused significant chest trauma and collapsed one of his lungs, a Special Forces medic infused a needle into his lung that allowed him to breathe and saved his life.  Afterwards, one would think Gutierrez would be down for the count.  However, he continued managing close air support and airstrikes.  He was responsible for saving nearly 30 American and Afghan military lives 25.  Gutierrez also took part in the Battle of Shok Valley the previous year with Zachary Rhyner.   In 2012, Gutierrez was inducted into the Air Command and Staff College’s annual Gathering of Eagles Program at Maxwell AFB, Montgomery, Alabama 26.

Staff Sergeant Ashley SpurlinImage result for Staff Sergeant Ashley Spurlin

Spurlin was deployed as a CCT with Army Delta Force Operators from August 2007 to February 2008.  The detachment usually set out on missions in Kunar Province, Afghanistan to capture or kill enemies of the government 27.

Sergeant Spurlin deployed on more than 50 such combat missions and offered expert guidance on all aircraft and close air support capabilities 27.

He was acknowledged for responding to IED threats, manned an MK-19 rear gunner for patrol support and was the prime expert for all fire support and emergency close air support 27.

Image result for AC-130 gunship
AC-130 Gunship

During the Waturpor Valley mission, enemy insurgents were advancing on friendly troops.  Spurlin utilized an AC-130 gunship to take out the enemy attack.  The munitions that were fired by the war-planes who under his guidance decimated 10 to 15 enemy divisions who were assaulting coalition troops 27.

For his actions during his deployment with the Delta Force operators, Ashley Spurlin was awarded the Bronze Star 27.


Combat Controllers are appointed to Special Tactics Squadrons that are a part of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) that is headquartered in Hurlburt Field, near Pensacola Florida.

Three Wings operate under the AFSOC Shield of the United States Air Force Special Operations Command.svg:

  • 24th Special Operations Wing insignia.jpg24th Special Operations Wing – Hurlburt Field, Florida
    • There are 2 Special Tactics Groups with several Tactics Squadrons stationed in 21st Special Tactics Squadron insignia.jpgFlorida, 24th STS badge.jpgNorth Carolina, 26th Special Tactics Squadron.jpgNew Mexico and 22 STS.jpgWashington state
  • 353d Special Operations Group.png353rd Special Operations Group, with the 320th STS.jpg320th Special Tactics Squadron – Kadena Air Base, Japan
  • 352d Special Operations Group.png352nd Special Operations Wing, with the 321st STS.jpg321st Special Tactics Squadron – RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom

There are also two CCT Air National Guard Squadrons:

  • 123rd Special tactics squadron insignia.jpg123rd Special Tactics Squadron, Louisville International Airport/Louisville Air National Guard Base, Kentucky (Kentucky Air National Guard)
  • 125th Special tactics squadron insignia.jpg125th Special Tactics Squadron, Portland International Airport/Portland Air National Guard Base, Oregon (Oregon Air National Guard)

How do I Join?

As with all other US military special operations forces, Combat Controllers must be in excellent physical condition in order to operate on the ground in many diverse conditions and constantly train for missions.  The streamline for applicants is highly competitive and only the brightest, strongest and longest lasting survive the cut 5.

To become a CCT, applicants have to have a high school diploma or equivalent GED with an additional 15 credits of college.  They also must have tested in “general” or “mechanical” in the ASVAB test before joining the Air Force 5.  The CCT pipeline is a 2-year training program.  The initial phase is CCT selection followed by air traffic control school, SERE training (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape), airborne school and then CCT school.  Afterwards, CCTs are taught more progressive skills and are always in training 7.

A current CCT stated, “The most challenging for me was stress inoculation week.  It is non-stop training back-to-back-to-back with very little sleep.  My advice to recruits coming in is to prepare yourself physically.  If you’re not, you’re not even going to graduate the first school to move on to the second.” 7

The following are qualifications to become a CCT:

  • Finish the Combat Control Team (CCT) physical ability and stamina test
    • 2 x 25 meter underwater (pass/fail, 3 min between each) with 10 min rest
    • 500 meter swim (freestyle, breaststroke, sidestroke), max time 11 min 42 seconds with 30 min rest
    • 5 mile run, max time 10 min 10 sec with 10 min rest
    • Pull-ups in 1 min, 8 minimum reps with 3 min rest
    • Sit-ups in 2 min, 48 minimum reps with 3 min rest
    • Push-ups in 2 min, 48 minimum reps with 3 min rest 6
  • Minimum score of 30 on CCT selection model finished in Tailored Adaptive Personality Assessment System
  • Physical qualification for air traffic controller duty, marine diving duty and parachute duty

    SERE training
  • Physical qualification and maintenance of personal physical standards
  • Completion of a current National Agency Check, Local Agency Checks and Credit
  • Qualification as a static-line parachutist
  • Completion of 7.5 weeks of Basic Military Training as well as Airmen’s Week
  • Must be between the ages of 17 and 39 5

Training and Education:

  • Basic military training – 7.5 weeks
  • Airman’s week – 1 week
  • Technical training – 13 months 5

As one can see, becoming a CCT is a highly sought after position.  Many don’t make the cut to wear the coveted red beret.  The few who do hold their heads up high.Image result for usaf cct beret

In Conclusion

Combat Controllers, along with Pararescue teams, are the only ground based special operations forces in the US Air Force.  They emerged out of  WWI as Pathfinders and excelled during WWII.  With the new and improved capabilities and technology of modern day aircraft, CCTs have stepped up to the challenge and have surpassed all expectations.  When they are embedded with other US Military Special Operations teams, they become a fellow operator and are capable of operating in many diverse, challenging and dangerous situations.

I once met a gentleman who was a Combat Controller.  He had lost some weight due to an accident, however, he was will in great shape and a force to be reckoned with.  Although he was humble and had a big heart, I would hate the be on his bad side.  One time, he returned home from some “training” in Africa.  It was probably an actual mission but he couldn’t disclose any information.  When his dad welcomed him home from the airport, he asked his son, “So, what was it like in Africa?” His son looked at his proud father with a smile on his face and simply stated, “It was hot,”


Works Cited

  1. “Combat Control Fact Sheet”. Air Force Special Operations Command. United States Air Force. Archived from the original on 2013-08-01. Retrieved 13 January 2013.
  1. “Combat Control career description”. Archived from the original on 2014-04-05. Retrieved 12 January 2013.
  1. “Combat Controllers Overview”. SOFREP. Archived from the original on 2014-02-13. Retrieved 2013-05-11.
  1. Donna Miles (23 April 2004). “Combat Controllers Play Key Role in Terror War”. American Forces Press Service. Archived from the original on 2014-01-15. Retrieved 12 January 2013.
  1. Hoyt, E. P. (1987). America’s wars and military excursions. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  1. “US Air Force Combat Control Teams – A Unique History”. Archived from the original on 2013-10-31. Retrieved 20 January 2013.
  1. “US Air Force Combat Control Teams – A Unique History”. Archived from the original on 2013-10-31. Retrieved 20 January 2013.
  1. “PathFinders Born”. Archived from the original on 2013-10-29. Retrieved 20 January 2013.
  1. Busch, Bryan Cooper Bunker Hill to Bastogne: Elite Forces and American Society 2006 Brasseys
  1. “95 Year Old Air Commando Legend Shares History with Today’s Special Operators”. Archived from the original on 2013-11-04. Retrieved 20 January 2013.
  1. “The Pacific Theatre”. Archived from the original on 2013-10-31. Retrieved 20 January 2013
  2. “US Air Force Combat Control Teams – A Unique History”. Archived from the original on 2013-10-31. Retrieved 20 January 2013.
  3. Colonel Buck Elton. “Haiti: Boots on the Ground Perspective” (PDF). Small Wars Journal. Retrieved 12 January 2013.
  4. “Chief Master Sergeant Tony Travis”. Archived from the original on 30 January 2016. Retrieved 13 January 2013.
  5. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (29 April 2010). “2010 Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people: Chief Master Sergeant Tony Travis”. Time Magazine. Archived from the original on 2013-08-17. Retrieved 13 January 2013.
  6. Maj. David Small (29 April 2010). “TIME magazine recognizes Airman in top 100”. National Media Outreach Office. Retrieved 12 January 2013.
  7. “Air Force Combat Controller Surprises Girlfriend | Welcome Home Blog”.
  8. “A Warrior’s Life: An Interview with Gen. Bryan “Doug” Brown, USA (Ret.)”. Defense Media Network. 2011-05-31. Archived from the original on 2013-05-13. Retrieved 2013-05-11.
  9. “Hall of Valor: Zachary Rhyner”. Military Times. Archived from the original on 2014-04-08. Retrieved 17 January 2013.
  10. “Combat controller receives Air Force Cross, Purple Heart”. 11 March 2009. Archived from the original on 16 January 2011. Retrieved 17 January 2013.
  11. Gina Cavallaro (15 December 2008). “Valor of combat cameraman earns him Silver Star”. Army Times. Retrieved 17 January 2013.
  12. Michael Auslin (19 September 2011). “An Air Force Hero in Action – Staff Sergeant Robert Gutierrez”. Fox News. Archived from the original on 2012-06-27. Retrieved 20 January 2013.
  13. “Eagle Biography: Robert Gutierrez, Jr.”. Retrieved 7 March 2013.
  14. Griggs, S. (2009). Combat control instructor earns Bronze Star. USAF Website. Retrieved from
  15. Wasdin, H., & Templin, S. (2011). Seal Team Six. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.



2 thoughts on “USAF Combat Control – “First There”

  1. Loved this post. The average American doesn’t even know that the Air Force has Special Operations units. Even after 16 years of war. Everybody knows the household names of Green Berets, SEALs, Rangers, Marines, yet the Air Force are always left out. I’ve fortunately been blessed with forming relationships with many of these badasses yet never have I met a CCT. The only AFSOC friends I know are PJs. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks for reading! You are correct. CCTs are highly underrated and virtually unknown to most. However they have contributed greatly to the war on terror and to humanitarian crises worldwide. Keep up the good work on your blog too!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s