The role of the Air Force Combat Controller (CCT) is not the easiest to define. They are not pararescuemen (PJs) but can perform some of the same functions. They are not Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), but they perform some of those functions as well. The simplest way to put it would be that Air Force Combat Controllers control the skies before, during, and after battle.

Combat Controllers go behind the lines to establish airfields and assault zones. They operate as air traffic controllers (and are FAA certified) and command and control for the aircraft portion of a special operation. Their training is done alongside Air Force special operators and special operations forces from the other three branches. CCTs receive 83 weeks of training in order to earn the scarlet beret.

Combat Controller Training

Prep Course

CCT training starts the same way every Airman’s training begins with basic military training (BMT) at Joint Base Lackland. After eight weeks in BMT, they march across the street to begin the eight-week Special Warfare Preparatory course. This prep course is physically intensive. It focuses on fitness, nutrition, and water confidence. At the end of the eight weeks, the Physical Ability and Stamina Test (PAST) is administered. This PT test determines whether the trainee has physically what it takes to be an operator. Fail this, and your time in special operations is over. Pass it and you march across the street to Assessment and Selection.

Air Force Combat Controller Assessment and Selection

Assessment and Selection (A&S) lasts four weeks and introduces trainees to the realities of what they volunteered to do. The first 2.5 weeks are spent “in the field.” Trainees live in tents and sleep on cots. Almost all this training is done outside. It focuses on fitness through swimming, running, rucking, and calisthenics. 

The final week and a half are spent in academia. Tests are taken, evaluations are given, and the instructor cadre rates individual candidates on their suitability to move forward in training. There is no final PT test to complete A&S. The cadre are looking for candidates that will make good operators and fitness is only one aspect. Fitness can be taught; the mindset to actually be an operator has to already be there.

Pass A&S and you literally get thrown in the deep end.

Pre-Dive Course

The candidates who have made it this far march across the street again to the Chaparral pool at JB Lackland. That pool, and the track next door, will be candidates’ homes for the next four weeks. Room and board and training are all housed in the same complex. Rehabilitation facilities and staff are available to ensure candidates are, and remain, healthy. As long as they stay that way, it’s time to swim to Florida.

Special Warfare Combat Dive Course

Special Tactics Training Squadron students swim
Special Tactics Training Squadron students swim the length of the pool with their hands and feet bound during a pre-scuba class at Hurlburt Field, Florida, June 29, 2016. (Photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy/USAF)

At the Naval Support Activity Panama City, Air Force Combat Controller candidates complete eight weeks of training to become combat dive certified. The course is broken into two phases. Candidates spend the first five weeks learning SCUBA fundamentals, basic diving techniques, and rescue diving. The last three weeks focus on using closed-circuit underwater breathing apparatuses known as rebreathers. This phase is where the student learns combat diving

However, there is a laundry list of requirements before a candidate can attend the Combat Dive Course. They must complete prep, assessment, and pre-dive training. There are physicals to pass, questionnaires to fill out, and even a requirement for a hyperbaric test to show physical fitness under increased pressures. Candidates are required to have proof of all these things when they arrive at dive training and will be turned away if not. Command will not be happy if they pay to get you there, then pay to bring you home when you don’t meet the requirements.

Airborne School(s)

Once you’re done with the water, you get intimate with the air. Three weeks in Fort Benning, GA, at the Basic Airborne Course (BAC), prepare candidates to jump out of airplanes. BAC trains all branches of the military, so Airmen will live and train beside soldiers, sailors, and Marines. This is a great experience for the joint operations that combat controllers will be a part of. 

Once BAC is complete, candidates are whisked away to Yuma, AZ, and to Military Freefall School. This school puts special operations candidates from all services together to learn basic free-fall and jumpmaster techniques. Candidates engage in advanced military free-fall training, like high altitude-low opening (HALO) and high altitude-high opening (HAHO) parachuting. 

Special operators perform a HALO jump
Special Operations Forces members exit a C130J Super Hercules during a high-altitude low-opening parachute jump, April 7, 2021, above a drop zone in Rhode Island. (Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Deirdre Salvas)


Air Force Combat Controller candidates do not parachute into SERE, even though it’d be a lot cooler if they did.

Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE). Washington state is a good place to learn these skills, and the Air Force teaches them at SERE school. Fairchild AFB is the home of the Air Force’s Survival School. Special operations forces are considered “high risk for isolation” while in the field, and so must learn to fend for themselves in any situation. 

SERE was designed to train downed pilots on how to survive behind enemy lines, evade capture, resist the enemy, and finally escape. Special operators need those skills as much as, if not more than, the rare downed pilot. In this three-week course, candidates learn how to live off the land, construct shelter with available items, perform wilderness first aid and land navigation — in all weather conditions and terrains. If the candidate “survives” this training, it’s back to the air.

Air Traffic Control

I am going to break here, for a moment, and remember my time at Keesler AFB, MS. I attended basic and advanced electronics there in 1998-99. The basic electronics schoolhouse backed up to the ATC schoolhouse. The two shared a common area used for breaks. I have never seen such haunted-looking people as the ATC students out for a break. They chain-smoked, shot-gunned coffee or Mt. Dew (before the energy-drink craze), and started at the slightest stimulus. They did not look healthy.

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Moving on.

Because the Air Force Combat Controller’s first responsibility is directing air traffic, they must be certified air traffic controllers. An 11-week course at Keesler AFB teaches them what they need to know.

After all the training already completed, it seems strange that this course would be a killer for some. Yet, according to a 2012 RAND study, the attrition rate for CCT candidates in ATC school was around 38 percent. Some of this is due to stress caused by previous training, but air traffic control is a very stressful job in itself. If candidates chain-smoke their way through it, they move on to more training!

Combat Control Apprentice Course

Air Force Combat Control Team Beret and Flash
U.S. Air Force Combat Control Team Beret and Flash (U.S. Air Force)

The CCT apprentice course is located at Pope AFB, NC. In this eight-week course, candidates take what they have learned and put it all together to experience the reality of being an Air Force Combat Controller. Physical fitness is still the most highlighted aspect, but candidates begin to employ small-unit tactics that utilize the skills they have learned. They learn to work as teams, practicing navigation, demolition, field operations, and parachuting. Once this training is complete, candidates receive their scarlet beret, CCT flash, and are awarded the 3-skill level corresponding to apprentice.

Apprentices need hands-on experience, so it’s off to Hurlburt Field, FL.

Special Tactics Training

Combat Controller apprentices spend six months at Hurlburt Field, in Advanced Skills Training (AST). There, they hone their existing skills and gain new ones. Further, at Hurlburt, candidates put all their skills together.

Four phases make up the AST: water, ground, employment, and full mission profile. During AST, Combat Control candidates are pushed to the limits of their endurance, and sometimes beyond. The phases are designed to test the candidates’ abilities to function effectively under duress, and function well as part of a team. 

Candidates swim, learn advanced weaponry and demolition, ATV operation, swim some more, conduct land and open-water navigation, and foster their esprit de corps with teammates. Upon completion of AST, candidates become Air Force Combat Controllers. From there, it’s on to the first duty station and more training. Training never stops.

Famous Air Force Combat Controllers 

Outside of special operations circles, there really aren’t any famous CCTs. For that matter, there are very few famous Air Force special operators. Everybody has heard of the Navy SEALs, Green Berets, Delta Force, blah, blah. The reason you never hear about Combat Controllers is because they are embedded with Navy SEALs Teams, Green Berets ODAs, Delta Force Squadrons, blah, blah. 

Air Force Combat Controllers guide an A-10 Thunderbolt
Combat controllers with the 321st Special Tactics Squadron guide an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot from Maryland Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Squadron to land at Jägala-Käravete Highway, August 10, in Jägala, Estonia. (Photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy/USAF)

With only around 500 combat controllers around, they don’t get the recognition of the larger units. If a team of Delta Force operators needs an infil or exfil site determined, they turn to the embedded CCT. When Navy SEALs need an airstrike to complete a mission, they turn to the embedded CCT. Yet, when Fox News or CNN report on those operations, they report that a SEAL team successfully completed the mission. No mention of the Combat Controller. But, when you’re that good, you don’t need the accolades.

Indeed the “quiet professionals.”