Metro-East News

From Southern Illinois, Air Operations Center works to deploy aid all over the world

In the wake of natural disasters and humanitarian crises, an Air Force control center is deploying thousands of mobility aircraft all over the world to render aid from right in your own backyard.

From the cornfields of Southern Illinois, members of the 618 Air Operations Center execute about 200 missions per day in the Air Mobility Command Headquarters at Scott Air Force Base. The team of approximately 700 personnel works 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year to plan, task and control airlift, air refueling and contingency response forces and deploy them globally.

When disasters like Hurricane Dorian, which has left at least 70,000 people homeless in the Bahamas, strike, the AOC receives requests to set up airfields in the world’s toughest to access spots.

“In 12 hours, we can be moving anywhere in the world,” said Master Sgt. James Wyly, the Contingency Mission Coordination Branch Manager.

Wyly’s team assesses and validates the requests it receives for aide, which he says can come in many different forms — from asking for generators or water purification systems, to rations and medical assistance, when necessary. It then figures out what size airfield they need to establish, how many aircraft to send and what kind of aircraft to send.

Then, the team must work to provide its air crews with the proper diplomatic clearances, parking and lodging situations and fueling needs so that airmen don’t have to worry about that part when trying to execute a mission.

The AOC has recently provided aid to citizens in Venezuela by way of Columbia, assisted in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak and is assessing how to help in the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian. In non-emergency scenarios, the AOC also follows the U.S. President and cabinet members’ airplanes whenever they move, providing fuel and security, and helps support the Navy Blue Angels and Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration teams.

“The phrase we use is ‘feast or famine,’” said Wyly when asked how often the team receives requests.

A constant process

Since the AOC has to be prepared for any situation, any time, anywhere, it runs continuous exercises to get familiar with systems, networks and execution plans. From Sept. 8-28, the AOC will be doing the Mobility Guardian exercise, sending 4,000 airmen in 29 different aircraft from bases all around the globe to Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington to test readiness and strengthen mobility plans.

“It’s a constant process to make sure we’re always ready,” said Maj. Anthony Mitchell, the Mobility Guardian Liason. “We have to do it over and over and over and over again so we never get it wrong. We want to make it hard to fail.”

The exercises happen every other year, and the planning conferences are put on during the off years, Mitchell said. As technology gets stronger every year, the team must figure out how to incorporate new techniques and systems into plans — new technology that the U.S.’s adversaries could also have access to.

“We never fully know what the enemy is capable of, but you have to have a mindset where no matter what the problem is, we know we can overcome it,” said Technical Sgt. Kyle Switzer, the Mobility Guard Air Refueling Planner.

Part of that is speaking with the military’s intelligence forces to figure out how to be in constant communications with air crews from the base. According to Technical Sgt. Kevin Owens, the Section Chief of Network Operations, one of the greatest assets the Air Force has is a program called Mystic Star, which he referred to as “the world’s longest radio handset,” which uses radios in house to reach radios around the world via phone dialing and computer networks.

There’s always a backup plan for the backup plan, however, and if all else fails, Owens said high-frequency radios can even take satellites out of the picture and bounce off the ionosphere to transmit radio signals “to any aircraft anywhere in the planet.”

Poised to help

Wyly said that the personnel who work on the AOC are all experts in their fields and that many of them, like him and Maj. Christopher Dewitt, the Contingency Mission Planner for the AOC, have been on the other side of the radio as airmen executing the missions.

“Being on the other end, we know what they’re going to ask for,” he said. “We can put ourselves in the place of the people on the ground.”

According to Dewitt, the team feels good knowing that they’re able to help people “in many different missions on complete opposite sides of the world” right from Illinois.

“These (situations) happen all over the world,” he said. “It’s nice knowing you get to touch them all in some way from here.”

Hana Muslic has been a public safety reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat since August 2018, covering everything from crime and courts to accidents, fires and natural disasters. She is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and her previous work can be found in The Lincoln Journal-Star and The Kansas City Star.