Saturday, February 07, 2015

Robins unit stays ready for military plane crashes

Staff Sgt. Michael Lindsay shows some of the equipment the Hammer ACE unit at Robins Air Force Base uses when it deploys. The setup includes solar panels that power electronics to establish communications at an aircraft crash site. 

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE -- A small, elite unit at Robins stands ready around the clock to respond to a military aircraft crash or nuclear episode.

The Hammer ACE unit is the only one like it in the Air Force. It specializes in setting up communications when a crash site is at a remote location that may not even have cellphone service.

“Hammer” is an Air Force name for a specialized unit, and ACE stands for Adaptive Communications Element. The unit is made up of just nine people, with three on call at any given time to respond to a crash.

It doesn’t happen very often, but they are expected to be ready to go when it does. The unit has been at Robins since 2010 and has been on five calls, which means they spend a lot of time training.

“We have some highly trained, highly qualified airmen here,” said Master Sgt. Thomas Williams, the superintendent of the unit. “At the end of the day you really don’t want them to go out and do their job. If we are called out, people have died. The only question is how many.”

The most recent deployment happened in August when an F-15 from the Massachusetts Air National Guard crashed in a remote area of Virginia. The pilot, a decorated combat veteran, died in the crash.

The unit formed in 1980 after two serious incidents happened back to back, said Senior Airman Curtis Bonham.

A B-52 bomber on the ground and loaded with nuclear bombs caught fire, causing a major scare. Just three days later a worker at a nuclear missile silo dropped a wrench into the silo that bounced off the floor and punctured the rocket. The damage led to an explosion that blasted the nuclear warhead out of the silo.

Of course, there was no nuclear explosion in either case. But it led the Air Force to conclude that it needed a way to establish and secure communications when responding to serious episodes. Bonham said in both cases there were misunderstandings by the public due to misinterpretations of military lingo and operating procedures that were picked up over unsecured radios.

“The community did not really understand what was happening,” Bonham said. “It caused fears and anxieties.”

But it’s not just about keeping communications secret, Williams said. The equipment they set up helps ground commanders communicate information to the public. They even have a satellite TV dish they set up so commanders can see what information is being reported in the media.

While responding to accident sites is their primary purpose, they also are useful in other situations. They responded to hurricanes Katrina and Sandy because communications in those areas were obliterated. They also may respond to aircraft crashes from other military branches -- and even civilian crashes.

Their equipment includes a satellite dish to link phone and computer communications, powered with batteries that can be trickle charged with roll-up solar panels.

“We are completely self-sustainable,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Lindsay. “We don’t need power right away.”

The unit was originally at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, then moved to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia before coming to Robins. One reason the unit has moved, Williams said, is that its mission does not fit neatly into any larger unit, so it has been transferred between units.

But it is now attached to the 51st Combat Communications Squadron of the 5th Combat Communications Group at Robins, better known as the 5th Mob. The 5th Mob goes into remote locations in combat areas and sets up communications. Hammer ACE basically does the same thing, except at crash locations rather than combat areas.

So, the 5th Mob is a good fit for the unit, Williams said. A Hammer ACE position is highly sought after, and when there is a vacancy in the unit, a dozen or more 5th Mob airmen generally apply.

“These are the finest airmen I have had the pleasure of working with in my 24 years,” he said.

Story and photos:

Staff Sgt. Michael Lindsay talks about some of the communications equipment the Hammer ACE unit would set up inside a tent an aircraft crash site. The unit is ready to deploy around the clock. 

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