Cool under pressure: calm and composure keys to success in guarding America's skies.
As a single mother, she has to juggle the day-to-day world of bills, car problems, calls from schools and the litany of challenges that can send any parent, single or otherwise, screaming from the house.
As an air surveillance technician with the Southeastern Air Defense Sector, Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., she must calmly interpret hundreds of glowing dots on a computer screen representing aircraft flying in North American airspace. Any deviation, any unscheduled change, any unusual activity are palpable reminders of Sept. 11, 2001, and can send a jolt of electric urgency through the control room. She has to figure out what's a threat, and what isn't.
"When there's an event taking place, there's a lot of high energy on the operations floor," she said. "I'm pretty laid back, and that can be useful as an AST because a person can't make fast, logical decisions if they get stressed out and are easily overwhelmed."
Sergeant Watson began her career in 1994 as a weapons simulation technician with the 325th Training Squadron. Two years later, she joined the Florida Air National Guard and moved to the defense sector in 1998.
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., air surveillance technicians spent most of their time looking outside U.S. borders for enemy threats. The attacks changed 1st Air Force's mission, adding attention to air traffic within U.S. airspace to the confusing mass of blips on computer screens technicians peer at for hours each day.
And like most people, the attacks changed Sergeant Watson's life. She still has to juggle daily responsibilities as a parent, but the demands of the work place are more intense. Her basic job is to track aircraft--thousands a day--in case they deviate from their flight plans. Any changes trigger a series of steps to confirm the aircraft's identity and actions. If the plane is acting suspiciously, fighter jets could scramble to intercept.
It's a high-stress job that requires attention to detail and an analytical mind, she said.
"We have a real-world mission that never ends," she said. "We're here 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. On Christmas, New Year's, any holiday, you name it, we're here, watching the skies and making sure all the aircraft entering the United States are friendly."
Living on Florida's gulf coast for 10 years is one of the benefits of being in the Guard, Sergeant Watson said. But there are times she feels a little envious of her active duty counterparts who get to move around and travel.
When she starts longing for a less sedentary life, she focuses on the stability she's providing her family.
"I know I could be in worse places," she said. "I just forget how good I have it sometimes."
Her mellow approach to life is paying dividends. She received a promotion and was chosen the Florida Air Guard's noncommissioned officer of the year almost simultaneously. Now she's trying to finish a bachelor's degree in management, get her next stripe and attend the senior NCO academy.
At the same time, the defense sector is transforming to an air operations group, bringing it more in line with other combat commands. The change will mean new opportunities for the sergeant.
"I think it will be a welcome change of pace," she said.
Eventually, Sergeant Watson wants to retire and pursue new paths. After raising a family and protecting the nation from airborne attack, what will she do? Go to Disney World, of course.
"If I didn't work here, I'd be working at Walt Disney World," she said. "I travel to Disney several times a year, and it's like a second home. One of my personal dreams has been to work for the Walt Disney Co."
Career Field Facts
1 C5X1--Aerospace control and warning systems
Duties: Vary according to locations, but most technicians are charged with monitoring designated locations via computer terminal and tracking inbound or other air traffic in their areas of responsibility.
Civilian Application: "There really isn't a direct civilian equivalent to this job," Tech. Sgt. Christie Watson said. "The [career field] is often mistakenly associated with air traffic control, but that isn't what we do."
Tech. Sgt. Christie Watson
Air surveillance technician, Southeast Air Defense Sector, Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.
Years in Air Force: 10
Hometown: LaPlata, Md.
Reason for joining: "Probably the same reasons a lot of people have. Education, travel--things like that. It's just worked out that I've stayed in a place I love and a job I like."
Assignments: 325th Training Squadron, Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla; Southeast Air Defense Sector, Tyndall.
Coming up: Transforming the Southeastern Air Defense Sector to an air operations center.
Best thing about the job: "I tell people that they can sleep soundly at night because we'll be awake keeping them safe."