185 feet up in the air and only 1 way down

Staff Sgt. Grant Gimpel rappels from the roof of the Baghdad International Airport air traffic control tower during a training event March 3 at Sather Air Base, Iraq. The training is necessary in case controllers working in the 185-foot tower need to escape during an emergency. Sergeant Gimpel is a firefighter with the 447th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Allen)

Staff Sgt. Grant Gimpel rappels from the roof of the Baghdad International Airport air traffic control tower during a training event March 3 at Sather Air Base, Iraq. The training is necessary in case controllers working in the 185-foot tower need to escape during an emergency. Sergeant Gimpel is a firefighter with the 447th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Allen)

SATHER AIR BASE, Iraq (AFPN) -- Like spiders riding down a thread of silk, air traffic controllers here rappelled down a 185-foot control tower and learned a skill that could one day save their lives.

For the controllers of the 447th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron, working in the Baghdad International Airport tower provides a great vantage point for controlling airfield traffic. In the event of an emergency; however, it could prove to be a death trap. Left with rappelling as their only means of escape, speed is of the utmost importance to survival.

"A lot of us have husbands, wives, children, family and friends (who) we want to get back home to," said Staff Sgt. Grant Gimpel, a 447th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter deployed from the Minnesota Air National Guard's 148th Fighter Wing from Duluth, Minn. "In a fire seconds count, with this training the workers should be able to get to the roof of the tower and be ready to go within a short time."

Armed with what seemed like enough rope and climbing gear to climb Mount Everest, firefighters assigned to the 447th ECES trained the air traffic controllers after first getting up to the top of the tower. After making their twisted ascent to the roof using a combination of the elevator and stairs, the firefighters began unpacking bags and tying off ropes with knots that would leave the saltiest of sailors breathless.

Just peeking over the edge of the tower for the first time can instantly freeze some people in their tracks; coping with sweating palms and flipping stomachs could waste precious seconds. For the firefighters; however, the tangle of ropes as well as the sea of straps and buckles is a typical sight.

"I do this stuff at home," said Senior Airman Todd Cooper, a 447th ECES firefighter, as he secured the rope to a bolt on the top of the tower radar stand. The Airman is deployed from Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan.

Everything was checked three times and equipped with back-up safety mechanisms to include the large, Class-3 harness that is more than sufficient to support the weight of even the largest tower worker safely.

"(The harness) is designed to carry your weight and someone else's during a rescue, but you guys will only have a rigger's belt if you need to do this for real," said Tech. Sgt. Ed Autery, a 447th ECES firefighter deployed from the 183rd Fighter Wing from Springfield, Ill.

A rigger's belt is a thin nylon strap that folds through a buckle and is held closed with a fabric fastener. The only distinguishable difference from a regular belt is the small metal ring about two inches right of the buckle where the rappelling rope attaches.

The reality of going over the edge of the nearly 200-foot tower tethered by a single rope and a harness, let alone a small belt, would make even the bravest person pause. Just climbing over the railing was the hardest part for controller Senior Airman Brandi Nesladek, deployed to Iraq from the 259th Air Traffic Control Squadron from the Louisiana Air National Guard out of Alexandria, La.

"When they told me to lean back, all I could do was argue," said Airman Nesladek, a native of Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

For most, going over the rail requires conquering primal fears, but reaching the ground safely leaves them with the confidence they need to save themselves.

"Once I reached the bottom, it was a rush!" Airman Nesladek said. "I almost wanted to do it again -- almost."