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Operational test launches allow missileers, maintainers chance to shine

  • Published
  • By Carla Pampe
  • Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs
For the members of Air Force Global Strike Command's missile community, participating in an intercontinental ballistic missile operational test launch is the opportunity of a lifetime -- something that only a select few get to experience.

To make the most of that opportunity, lots of hard work, preparation and training go into the planning and execution of every test launch. The collective effort of all the players involved in a test launch allows the Air Force to evaluate the safety, security and reliability of the Minuteman III.

"Every test launch validates the readiness and effectiveness of the ICBM force -- a visible strategic deterrent," said Col. Lance Kawane, commander of the 576th Flight Test Squadron which oversees tracking and telemetry systems on the missile. These systems collect data and ensure safety requirements are met.

"A tremendous amount of teamwork is involved in every test," Kawane said.

Members of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot AFB, N.D., and the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo., recently had the opportunity to put their skills to the test during Minuteman III operational test launches held Sept. 22 and 26 at Vandenberg AFB, Calif.

Preparations for a test launch begin several months prior to the launch window, said 1st Lt. Philip Parenteau, a missile combat crew commander with the 91st MW at Minot AFB.

"Selecting the site to pull the missile from and gathering all the necessary resources and personnel are accomplished long before the crews are selected for each test," he said, adding that it is the opportunity of a lifetime for the crews and maintainers selected to participate in a launch.

"Hard work, dedication, job knowledge, proficiency, and character are huge factors that go into selecting the most deserving members to participate in this prestigious event," Parenteau said. "Coming down to Vandenberg AFB to do this is a privilege that must be earned. To be [selected] to represent our wing is a great honor not afforded to more than a handful of us throughout our entire careers."

Master Sgt. Aaron Heard, a missile maintenance section noncommissioned officer in charge with the 90th MW acted as the task force maintenance NCOIC for the F.E. Warren team during the recent launches.

"Coming out to Vandenberg AFB and building up the missile with the knowledge that it is going to actually launch is an amazing feeling," Heard said. "What we do up north is a very important job, but it is always a challenge to feel job satisfaction. We are not like a conventional ammo dump that builds bombs and loads them onto planes, and then gets to see the footage of those bombs exploding.

"This is a rare opportunity to see our work in action," he added. "Knowing that approximately 30 minutes after launch there will be splashdown in the Marshal Islands and your efforts directly contributed to that is a great feeling."

First Lt. Lucas Rider, a missile combat crew instructor at the 90th MW, served as a deputy missile combat crew commander for one of the recent test launches.

For Rider, the most rewarding thing about participating in the launch was actually getting to turn the key and launch the missile after years of training and exercising.

"The great majority of missileers who have ever served in the 50-plus years of ICBMs have never actually launched a missile," he said. "We train in daily simulators and 'go to war' every month so that we are ready to fight, but it's all just a simulation. It's amazing to know that all the preparation for these two missiles contributed to their successful flights."

Capt. Alex Rich, task force maintenance officer in charge from the 90th MW, said these launches are important because they validate the weapon system.

"This allows our allies to feel confident in the nuclear umbrella we provide and forces our adversaries or potential adversaries to rethink a strike on the U.S.," he said.

In addition, Rich said the information engineers collect from the launches allows the team to identify any potential issues with new or aging components and devise solutions that can be implemented fleet wide.

For those who spend the majority of their careers out of the spotlight, it's a reminder of how important their job really is.

"I heard a George Orwell quote at school years ago and it continues to remind me why we do what we do as we stay in the shadows -- 'People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf,'" Rider said. "We may not be on the front lines firing bullets, and the headlines often don't sing of our victories, but the ICBM mission is vital to our national security."