Snow, wind kept Airmen in missile field

MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D., --

After fast-paced briefings on system checks and major maintenance, Intercontinental Ballistic Missile operators head out to their office for the day; a launch control center.

Upon arrival, crew changeover relieves prior operators from their duties and refreshes the missile capsule with new missileers.

A successful system check on the capsule and all assigned launch facilities leads to the beginning of a typical 24-hour shift, that is, until a blizzard rolls in and that typical shift turns into a 48-hour mission.  

On March 6, small bouts of snow and 60 mph wind gusts caused 91 MW ICBM operators to stay an extra night until a crew could safely replace them.

“Based on the weather reports, we advised our crew to stay on site,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Austin, 91st Operations Group deputy commander. “They stayed in the capsule and completed their work like any normal shift, just for the second day in a row.”

Once visibility reached zero, it was deemed safer for operators to stay where they were, whether it was on base or 60-90 feet underground in a LCC. 

“It’s all about safety,” Austin said. “When you’re traveling 30-80 miles one-way on unpaved roads, it is safer and easier for our Airmen to stay in place.”

Upon initial notification of an extended mission, missileers found themselves with mixed emotions.

“Of course you’re going to be a little disappointed that you’re not going home as planned, but we are here to do our job, right alongside the security forces members that are here for four or five days at a time,” said Capt. Morgan Emerson, 741st Missile Squadron missile combat crew commander.

Despite challenges, missileers maintained their vigilance and were prepared to operate; even if they had to use the back-up plan. 

“It’s a game of dealing with sleep shifts and fatigue, and then face power failures to the capsule and LFs,” Emerson said. “At one point during this 48 it seemed like all at the same time, the capsule and LFs were running on diesel, our back-up fuel. We knew how bad it was outside because we could see everything shifting to diesel, but yet we couldn’t actually see outside.”

Missileers are trained and prepared to complete any tasks they are given, even on an extra shift.

“We are down there every day, 365 days a year, to include holidays or normal week days” Austin said. “Whether it’s a quiet day with little going on, or major maintenance and you have to direct maintenance crews and respond to tests. At the same time, you’re receiving messages through the National Military Command System and you’re responding to those messages; you never know if it’s a test or something you need to act on.”

Some missileers optimized the extra time and used it as a training opportunity.

“When I found out we were staying out there for an extra day, I took out task orders and we studied and performed checklists,” Emerson said. “It was a great opportunity to study and really focus on what we are doing out there.”

For Capt. Will Coley, 91st Operations Support Squadron instructor, this mission was the first time he conducted a 48-hour shift.

“I completed 190 alerts when I was stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana,” said Coley. “This was my first alert at Minot and it just so happened to be my first 48 [hour shift] as well. It was my ‘welcome to Minot’ moment.”

Although some people may not find it ideal to be stuck underground for 48 hours, most missileers take pride in their accomplishments and are rewarded for their unique job.

“We weren’t sure how we were getting back the second day, so we were able to fly in a helicopter back to base,” Emerson said. “It’s something every missileer talks about wanting to do before they leave Minot. I’m so glad I got the opportunity.”