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Silent Sentinels: Communication is key

F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. --

In the world of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the mission is completed by a number of organizations working together to maintain a safe, secure and effective force.

As a photojournalist, I get to see a wide spectrum of what Mighty Ninety Airmen do day to day. Recently, I spent three days out in the missile field with the 90th Missile Maintenance Squadron, watching maintainers perform unique tasks to sustain the 150 Minuteman III ICBMs and the associated launch facilities.

Each day brought something different and gave me an inside scoop into the life of a maintainer and how they contribute to the nuclear deterrence mission.

Day 3: Many voices working as one

My last day began with another two-hour drive to one of the LFs the 90th MMXS was working on that day. When I arrived, a missile maintenance team was finishing the final preparations before starting their task. 

A payload transporter – a nuclear certified trailer designed to protect pieces of a Minuteman III ICBM – was in place above the missile, and the blast door, which normally covers the missile, was open. I had a front-row seat as the maintainers removed the reentry system of the ICBM, gaining access to the missile’s guidance system underneath.

The process involved two sets of maintainers working in unison – one inside the vehicle above the ICBM, while the other connected the reentry system handling fixture, which lifts the RS into the vehicle.

One of the major takeaways was how big a role communication played in every aspect of the team’s day.

Watching the maintainers work was the perfect example of Air Force wingmanship. Each job was done in pairs, utilizing a two-man concept to ensure the tasks were completed correctly and securely. The duo maintained constant communication with each other, shouting every step out loud. The duet culminated into what can only be described as a chaotic symphony of voices.

“We stress the importance of working as a team to complete the mission,” said Master Sgt. Christopher Bradshaw, 90th MMXS Missile-Maintenance Team assistant NCO in charge. “You can compare our mentality to that of a professional sports team. When everyone works together towards a single goal, it appears as if it is done effortlessly, and the end product is flawless.”

While the teams shared small, confined work areas, each Airman moved efficiently and skillfully to perform their own duties. As I observed, I often had to side step out of the way, taking care not to disrupt their process.

One could compare the work to a well-choreographed routine, and each Airman played a role in the performance. The site supervisor acted as a conductor, directing the work by reading each step from a technical order, ensuring processes were done consistently each time.

“Technical orders help by providing a step-by-step process on what we need to do,” Bradshaw said. “Each step allows us to maintain a safe and secure work environment. If there is a deviation from the orders, equipment can be damaged or a person may be injured.”

The culmination of precise directing and expert choreography was a smooth and efficient performance. The constant communication ensured tasks were performed safely and effectively.

After spending three days with the squadron, I now have a better understanding of how their roles affect the ICBM mission. I spent more than nine hours traveling back and forth between the base and the missile field, observed four different crews perform operations and shared personal space in cramped work areas. I gained valuable insight into the life of a maintainer and the challenges they face every day.

“Although we might work long hours and in extreme conditions, we know that America trusts us to complete our mission day in and day out,” said Tech. Sgt. Johnathon Barron, 90th MMXS missile maintenance critical task supervisor. “Knowing that the hard work and dedication of the Airman maintaining this weapon system allow America and our allies to sleep soundly at night and enjoy their freedom is very satisfying.”

Editor’s note: This is the last in a series on the 90th Maintenance Group’s mission.