By U.S. Air Force Maj. Kinder Blacke
Since Sept. 11, 2001, members of the Colorado Air National Guard’s 140th Wing have been on alert, defending the homeland against airborne threats with their fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft staged at Buckley Air Force Base, Aurora, Colorado.
When COVID-19 turned the nation’s normal way of life upside down, the Aerospace Control Alert mission remains steadfast and unchanged.
“ACA is a 24/7 mission that we must execute no matter how distracting world events become,” U.S. Air Force Col. Kurt Tongren, commander, 140th Operations Group said. “America’s enemies never rest, and neither do we.”
It takes a team of professionals to support the alert mission, Tongren said. A maintenance crew, air traffic control tower operators, security forces defenders and pilots are on duty to ensure the alert mission is always ready.
To ensure the right people are on the job, the wing relies on U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Steven Richardson, alert chief enlisted manager, 140th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, who has been with the wing since before the ACA mission was born.
“It is my responsibility to ensure that we have appropriate manning to operate a 24/7 mission and a schedule for all of our mission essential alert personnel that will maximize their abilities while also taking care of the member’s personal life and health,” Richardson said.
Because the mission requires these Airmen to be on base together, they take all possible precautions to stay healthy and keep the virus out of the ACA community.
“By far, the biggest challenge is staying isolated and separated from our co-workers while continuing to perform our daily alert tasks, to include flying practice scrambles,” Tongren said. “But the alert team is finding ways to make it work.”
Richardson developed a plan to minimize the number of personnel needed during each shift and altered the schedule to decrease the frequency of swap outs in order to lessen the members’ exposure. The 140th Force Support Squadron (services) members are also providing four hot meals per day to the alert members to further preserve their health.
“It’s been a unique challenge coming up with ways to continue the mission and preserve the team’s health,” Richardson said. “But we have a strong plan in place, and contingency plans for all foreseeable issues that could arise.”
While the world is changing and our adversaries continue to pose a threat to the United States and our allies, Richardson said, the need to defend our homeland has never been more essential.
“Everyone seems to be ready and willing to do whatever it takes to make the mission happen,” Richardson said. “They work hard every day to provide mission-ready F-16s to defend our nation should we be called upon.”
Despite drastically reduced operations on the base, the ACA team continues to fly training missions periodically throughout the week to maintain currency and ensure their ability to respond at a moment’s notice.
“We hope that when our communities see and hear these alert jets flying around the state, they will feel a sense of pride and solidarity knowing that even though our nation is facing a challenging time, we are still strong and we will get through this together,” Tongren said.