35 years in the desert: Range controller retires after decades supporting Air Force combat training

  • Published
  • By Micah Garbarino
  • 388th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- “Shack!” is the slang that spotters and controllers on the ground say over the radio to fighter or bomber pilots when their weapons hit on target. Dorothy “Dot” Ellis may not be able to tell you how many times she’s said it over her 35 years on the Utah Test and Training Range, but she will tell you that every time has been part of one amazing career.

Ellis's will retire Dec. 31 as the Range Control Officer for the UTTR’s Eagle Range, a low-altitude air-to-ground target area. It’s a safe bet that she’s seen, heard, and felt more explosions and strafing runs than nearly any civilian in the United States Air Force.

“Dot has been the heart and soul of Eagle Range operations,” said Chris Robinson, former F-16 pilot with the 419th Fighter Wing and current UTTR director. “There are few pilots who have flown on Eagle Range in the last 35 years who don’t recognize her voice on the radio and appreciate her undying enthusiasm at a ‘Shack’ call.” 

Ellis’s job on the range is similar to the communication an air controller would have with pilots employing weapons in combat. 

“We control all the aircraft in Eagle’s airspace. We tell them how high they can fly, what approach pattern they should fly, if they can drop munitions and where they can drop. We score all of their ordnance, whether it’s a bomb drop or a strafing run,” Ellis said. “The radar can’t tell a pilot who’s 75 feet off the ground, on a low approach, whether he’s going to hit the ground or not. That’s where we come in. We can use our eyes as a visual check on what the pilot is doing.”

Ellis, a life-long resident of Grantsville, Utah, started her military career working as a contractor at the Tooele Army Depot. When she lost her job in 1985, her bowling partner suggested she look into work on the range.

She applied at the right time. In January 1986, the Air Force and the 388th Fighter Wing was in the first decade of maturing the F-16 Fighting Falcon, and Ellis was one of a 19-person team on Eagle Range that graded pilots employing air-to-ground munitions.

“Back then, there were two spotters, one in the main tower and one in the flank tower. We used spotting scopes and we could see the bomb come off the plane and hit the scoring rings around a target,” Ellis said. “We graded the hits and gave that information to a plotter, who told the range control officer, who relayed it to the pilot. So, they knew almost instantly how they did.”

The towers are situated one mile from the target area, and at the time, pilots were employing live ordnance – up to 2,000 lb bombs. Training was fast paced, and loud.

“It’s one of the main reasons I’ve always loved this job,” Ellis said. “The aircraft would come around and drop a bomb and I’d hurry up and score it. Then they were making another pass and dropping another bomb until they were out, and then they would start strafing. BRRRRRT! BRRRRRT! And you’ve got the soundwaves from the explosions and from the jets and could feel it,” Ellis said. “It was just awesome.” 

Range control officers used to be active duty or reserve fighter pilots, who would drive the 110 miles through the desert from Hill Air Force Base to the range. They would climb – or in the case of one pilot Dot remembers as ironically terrified of heights, crawl – up the 55-foot tower’s exterior staircase and take charge of controlling the airspace.

In 1992, the Air Force started training civilians as permanent Range Control Officers. Dot was in the original group of four female range control officers. She’s the last of the group.

The total manpower at Eagle range has shrunk from that 19-person team Dot joined, down to three people. Technology, budgets, manning, and capabilities change over three decades. With the advancement in aircraft targeting systems, sensors and cameras, there’s no longer a need for manual grading.

“Back when the camera’s first came on line, we could still grade it faster visually than the operator could,” Ellis said. “But you can’t rewind your eyes, once you spot it, that’s it. So, the cameras are great, because we can make sure we have the most accurate data.”

In addition to the Eagle Range, Ellis and her two fellow Eagle controllers, now score three other geographically separate areas with the assistance of remote recording and sensor equipment.

“Dorothy does an excellent job. She’s in constant communication with our pilots and pilots from various units that visit the range,” said Roger Cannon, Ellis’s supervisor and co-worker for 30 years. “We really, really hate to see her go.”

Ellis still has her spotting scope. She may not use it to score targets anymore, but from the Eagle tower, she has a unique perspective of Utah’s west desert which she has come to love. 

“I find the desert beautiful. Most people may overlook it, but there are seasonal changes – the green grass every spring, the wildflowers, the baby antelope with their fur that looks like little feathers, the coyotes, the storms rolling in, the sunsets and the stars. You wouldn’t believe the stars,” Ellis said.

Ellis and her husband have a great love for the outdoors and plan to spend their time in retirement enjoying their boat, camper and other outdoor “toys” with their family.

She still bowls too. 268 is her best game. She’ll still be setting up targets, knocking them down, and calling out scores – just without the spotting scope and explosions.