Conspicuous Service Medal for comms technician on airspace safety

A chance conversation and more than six months’ hard work led to No. 1 Combat Communications Squadron communication electronic technician Corporal Leigh Okunev being awarded a Conspicuous Service Medal in this year’s Australia Day honours.

CAPTION: Corporal Leigh Okunev’s work on a crucial aircraft navigation aid led to it being successfully restored to full operation. Photo by Sergeant Murray Staff.

His award citation said Corproal Okunev was responsible for a crucial aircraft navigation aid being successfully restored to full operation, providing efficient and effective service to the military and civilian users of the Newcastle airspace.

Issues plagued Newcastle’s air traffic radar system for more than a decade, which Corporal Okunev said led to controllers having reduced confidence in the system, forcing them to increase separation between aircraft − something they had learned to live with over the years.

“I was on a late shift and having a casual conversation with one of the controllers when he asked me to have a look at an issue,” Corporal Okunev said.

Over the next six months, RAAF Base Williamtown’s air traffic controllers logged hundreds of occasions where planes would jump around, not label correctly, have duplicate tracks or be where they were not supposed to be on the radar picture.

Corporal Okunev investigated each incident by performing playbacks on the aircraft control and radar systems before looking at the raw tracks from the different radar data sources to find out where the bad data was coming from.

“If you did identify the issue, next came the challenge of finding a solution.”

With six or seven issues identified in both the software and the radar system, Corporal Okunev developed workarounds, performed configuration updates and sent test results to the equipment manufacturer and System Project Office for rectification.

“The whole process involved a lot of reading manuals and documentation that came with the system, long emails to the equipment manufacturer and a lot of conversations with controllers to figure out how everything worked together,” he said.

“The broken bits are what make the job interesting. I signed up to be a technician, so doing this sort of stuff is my favourite part of the job.”

Corporal Okunev said he wasn’t expecting to be recognised with an Australia Day honour.

“It’s now more than a year later, so it was really surprising to get the letter notifying me I would be awarded the Conspicuous Service Medal,” he said.

“My wife was really happy when I told her. She’s really proud of me.”

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