TOP HAND – the program, the Airmen, the legacy

TOP HAND members pose for a photo in front of a Minuteman II missile display.

Current members of the TOP HAND program pose for a photo in front of the Minuteman II display, at the 576th Flight Test Squadron, Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, May 7, 2021. The TOP HAND program, which was started in 1972, offers a high-pace environment, professional development and career opportunities for missile operators (13N). The program has also experienced many changes throughout the years, with the latest change allowing for missile maintainer Airmen, both officer and enlisted, to apply to the program. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Ieva Bytautaite)

Airman poses for a photo in the ICBM heritage room.

Maj. Mark Carter, assistant director of operations and member of the Top Hand program, 576th Flight Test Squadron, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., poses for a photo in the ICBM Heritage Room, May 7, 2021. The Top Hand program, which was started in 1972, offers a high-pace environment, professional development and career opportunities for missile operators (13N). The program has also experienced many changes throughout the years, with the latest change allowing for missile maintainer Airmen, both officer and enlisted, to apply to the program. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Ieva Bytautaite)

TOP HAND members post for a photo.

Current members of the TOP HAND program pose for a photo at the 576th Flight Test Squadron headquarters, Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, May 7, 2021. The Top Hand program, which was started in 1972, offers a high-pace environment, professional development and career opportunities for missile operators (13N). The program has also experienced many changes throughout the years, with the latest change allowing for missile maintainer Airmen, both officer and enlisted, to apply to the program. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Ieva Bytautaite)

VANDENBERG SPACE FORCE BASE, Calif. --

Maj. Mark Carter settled into a chair at the ICBM Heritage Room, located at the 576th Flight Test Squadron, Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. Behind him, a wall filled with black and white and color photos, and other ICBM memorabilia told the stories of the past and present intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) operators, known across the command as “missileers”. Carter, who is an Assistant Director of Operations at the 576 FLTS, is also the senior member of TOP HAND, a professional development program housed at 576 FLTS.

What is TOP HAND

TOP HAND has roots dating back several decades. It was established in April of 1972 as a program to provide selected missile operations officers program management experience in ICBM Test and Evaluation. Until recently, it was a boarded program, meaning that those who wanted to join had to submit an application and were board selected. Only a select few became part of the TOP HAND program. Those selected are referred to as “TOP HANDers”.

“The whole premise of the program is to build weapon system experts and to take great missileers and teach them something they’re not familiar with.” said Carter. “So when you get a TOP HANDer, you are expected to get someone who knows the weapon system through and through.”

The selection process

Although Airmen are no longer selected by a board, the selection process, which is now done through Talent Marketplace, is very competitive. A thorough records review, comments from past commanders, education, knowledge and past duties are all considered.

Once Airmen are selected and arrive at VAFB, the hard work begins.

“Testing and acquisition are not typically in our wheel house,” said Carter. “The job here is not just test operations; we have to teach incoming Airmen program management as well because we get involved in a lot of programs from the beginning. We have to understand the different colors of money, how integrated test teams work, things that a lot of other missileers wouldn’t necessarily know.”

Since the program’s inception, there have been more than 400 TOP HANDers. Currently, there are 24 active members.

Capt. Kirsten McKenzie is an instructor of ICBM test operations, the program lead for Simulated Electronic Launch – Minuteman (SELM), a SELM test manager, and a TOP HANDer. Although she wears multiple hats, her job as an instructor is to focus on growing and developing the ICBM test operators.

“When new missileers first get here, they go through a Missile Qualification Training program, which was recently redeveloped,” said McKenzie. “Inbound test operators receive training on each of the five test missions we perform when they arrive. This enables our newest members to receive effective and consistent objective-based training of ICBM operational testing.  Once this is completed, they are ready to begin testing the weapon system!”

To officially become a TOP HANDer, all Airmen go through a patching ceremony. To become a patched member, Airmen are required to know the traditions and history of the program, as well as all of the mission sets of the 576 FLTS, and brief the information to current members.

“A TOP HANDer is expected to be well-versed in software, SELM, Operational Test Launch (OTL), Future Programs, and Tactics Development & Evaluation (TD&E), and how they interconnect with each other,” said Carter. “Not only that, but a TOP HANDer must be able to go into detail about each topic.”

The briefing usually lasts a couple of hours, and each test mission’s subject matter expert is on the board. After the briefing, the board members give a recommendation to the 576 FLTS commander, and he or she makes the final recommendation.

A recent change was made to allow missile maintainers, both officer and enlisted, to apply to the program.

“We don’t currently have any maintainers that have gone through the program but it is available to them,” said Carter. “If you are interested and are accepted, we will assign a mentor and if you wish, you can go through the patching program.”

Being a TOP HANDer

“Our mission here at the 576 FLTS is to do test operations, and the TOP HAND program is the professional development and mentor piece,” said Carter. “Being in TOP HAND consists of the test operation mission and learning about the entire ICBM enterprise.”

When the opportunity is available and the mission allows, TOP HANDers will go on professional development temporary duty. They visit the nuclear national labs at Sandia, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos and PANTEX. During the visits, they receive in depth briefings on each lab’s mission and how they apply to test operations.

“We also perform TDY missions in Utah because we accomplish software testing there,” said Carter. “In addition, we may TDY to Kwajalein Atoll and to the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawai’i to learn how all our sensors and radars work.”

Besides a lot of travel, the operational tempo at the 576 FLTS is very high. The squadron, which is mostly known for its MM III operational test launches, is in charge of four other ICBM Operational Test & Evaluation (OT&E) programs. These programs include SELM, software testing, future programs, and tactics development and evaluations (TD&E).

Capt. Tanner Popp, a TOP HANDer and flight commander for test operations, has been at the squadron for a little over four years. After completing his crew tour at Malmstrom AFB, Montana, he became a TOP HANDer. Although he didn’t know too much about the program and the other missions besides OTLs, what he’s loved most about his current job and the program is learning more about all aspects of the mission sets.

“I work with a ton of really smart people and they’re go-getters,” said Popp.  “Learning the maintenance mission, networking with the broader ICBM community, getting a taste of acquisitions, how that process works - have been the best aspects of my time here. Getting to know all the people who make the ICBM mission successful, besides just the operators or maintainers, has been eye opening.”

The TOP HAND family

The TOP HAND group is small. With only 24 active members, their busy jobs keep them on their toes. But they still find time to bond and continue decades-old traditions that have been passed down through the years.

“We have a lot of traditions. In fact, all the TOP HANDers sign their name on the bottom of this table,” said Carter, as he pointed to the conference room table adorned by the TOP HAND shield. “Most of us have pulled alert together at some point, but here we have missileers from all three missile wings.”

McKenzie, who came to the squadron shortly after having a child, was excited but nervous about the operational tempo and the TDYs.

“It was challenging at first, but being here has helped me grow vastly as an officer, as a leader and a manager,” said McKenzie. “What has made my time here are the brothers and sisters I work with. I could not get through the hardships and challenges that I’ve faced if it had not been for these wingmen.”

Words of wisdom

To those Airmen who have considered applying to the program or have only now learned about it, the TOP HANDers wanted to share a few words of wisdom.

“Always have a curious mind, try to focus on having a love of learning and having a growth mindset,” said McKenzie. “You don’t have to know everything right away; ask questions, and listen. You learn so much by asking questions. And always follow it with empathy and kindness.”

“This is the place to be if you want to expand on your weapon system knowledge, learn a new skill set with tests and program management,” said Popp. “It’s a lot of work but it’s very rewarding. This mission affects the operator, maintainer and warfighter every day.”