Extensive involvement in Vietnam helped form the basis of combat control operating methods in use today. Tailpipes, as they were commonly referred to in those days, assisted during countless airlifts. They helped to assure mission safety, expedite air traffic flow, and coordinate with local agencies and airlift control elements. The first controllers went in from Okinawa and Tachikawa in 1965 and the 8th Aerial Port stood up in 1966. True to the combat control motto “First In, Last Out”, they were the last American unit to be evacuated from Khe Sahn on 1 Apr 71. In addition, two American combat controllers were among the last to be lifted by helicopter from the roof of the U.S. Embassy when Saigon collapsed in 1975.
Because of their unique capabilities and quick reaction time, combat controllers have been instrumental in the resolution of several international emergencies and humanitarian relief efforts. When earthquakes devastated parts of Guatemala, Peru and Nicaragua, combat controllers were the first in and were the only communications link to relief headquarters for some time. Combat controllers worked at small airfields throughout North Africa and Bangladesh when the U.S. donated tons of food to drought stricken countries. In 1975 combat controllers were sent to Zaire and other African countries in response to contingencies in that region and in 1980 combat controllers were involved in the humanitarian attempt to rescue the American hostages held in Iran.
Combat controllers played a vital role in the 1983 Grenada rescue operation. The first airborne insertion occurred with a C-130 airdrop of 12 combat controllers and a force of U.S. Army Rangers from an altitude of only 500 feet. Each combat controller was loaded down with 90 pounds of equipment in addition to about 40 pounds of parachute gear. They quickly established a command and control radio net and air-to-ground radio communications in order to work inbound aircraft for follow-on airdrops and airland missions. They also acted as forward air controllers for U.S. Air Force gunships and U.S. Navy fighter aircraft. The primary mission of the unit was to establish usable navigational aids and provide initial air traffic control for the operation.
During operation Just Cause in 1989, combat controllers, pararescuemen and U.S. Army Rangers jointly deployed onto two separate air fields controlled by Panamanian Defense Forces. Combat controllers helped secure these air fields and then established an air traffic control capability for the fixed and rotary wing aircraft landings of assault forces. Their actions were instrumental to the success of airlift operations during this action.
Combat controllers were a part of the huge pre-strike build up of the United Nation coalition during operation Desert Shield. Combat controllers were heavily involved in the air traffic control, air-to-ground operations, and assault actions that liberated Kuwait from Iraq during the ensuing Desert Storm campaign. Combat controllers also provided extensive air traffic control for the airlift that provided humanitarian relief to Kurdish refugees fleeing into northern Iraq.
Combat controllers were involved in the struggle to capture Somalian leader Mohammed Fhara Aidid. Assigned jointly with Army Rangers, a single combat controller was tasked to operate in a Search and Rescue (SAR) role on an Army helicopter. After the initial assault began, two Army helicopters were shot down. Combat control responded to the scene to assist survivors by providing close air support and vital command and control communications. A single combat controller, along with two pararescuemen and additional Army Rangers, were inserted into the firefight, established radio communications with gunship helicopters and provided direct fire calls to remove enemy threats. As a direct result of his actions, the mission was completed and many lives were saved.
CCT members have played a huge role in the War-On-Terror. Since 9/11 three combat controllers and a special tactics officer have earned the Air Force Cross Medal for extraordinary heroism in combat operations and twenty have earned the Silver Star.