89th ATKS: Under snow, providing overwatch

By 1st Lt. Scarlett Trujillo 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

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It’s a snowy Thanksgiving Day in South Dakota where families are recovering from holiday meals, while the 89th Attack Squadron, based out of Ellsworth Air Force Base, is preparing for a holiday weekend of snowdrifts and combat.

“It was about three to four days prior to (the storm) that we started getting updates from weather sources,” said Lt. Col Daniel, 89th ATKS commander.

The updates Daniel received indicated the 89th ATKS, a squadron dedicated to conducting 24/7 MQ-9 Reaper operations for United States Central Command, could be facing their second mission-impacting storm of the year.

By 5 p.m. Nov. 29, road conditions had deteriorated and only mission-essential personnel were permitted to travel on and off the installation, with 50-knot winds and 8 to 12 inches of snow jeopardizing Airmen’s safety.

However, the 89th ATKS “Marauders” had already adequately prepared their Airmen to stay within the squadron for three-to-four overnight workdays, otherwise known as a bed down. Airmen were in place to support the mission with sufficient amounts of food, clothing and entertainment to keep them comfortable.

“There are numerous factors involved when we make the decision to bed down, and it’s not taken lightly,” Daniel said. “We also start coordinating with our downrange (liaisons), the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) and our supported units to determine exactly what missions we are going to be supporting during the worst part of the storm.”

The demand for the Reaper, and the dominant, persistent attack and reconnaissance effects it provides, is nonstop; the Marauders, understanding the demand despite the distance, were prepared to execute their responsibilities to the fullest.

 “It is normal mission execution,” Daniel explained. “We fly four combat lines, and we have the pilots, sensors, and a handful of intelligence analysts to support the mission as well.”

One of the 44 total-force Airmen who supported the mission while the 89th ATKS was under snow happened to be a newer member of the squadron, 1st Lt. Victoria, 89th ATKS intelligence operations supervisor.

“This was my first bed down, and I suppose I got the full experience in terms of six-foot snowdrifts and the short walk between the bed down and operations buildings,” Victoria said. “It’s probably no more than 100-meters between the two buildings, but the wind was blowing so hard you were pretty much walking sideways and stumbling through drifts past your knees.”

Victoria explained her typical bed-down day within the squadron as average - the only things really ringing as odd were where she woke up, and how she spent her spare time. The 89th ATKS facilities accommodated anywhere from 60 to 80 Airmen in their bunk-rooms, and they fed their forces through their full-sized kitchen, where Airmen also spent their evenings playing board games and solving puzzles.

“It was quite an experience,” Victoria said. “Especially when we have weather days, it highlights the fact that we are a 24/7/365 operation, and that our people always have to be committed to that mission, not just for the intelligence gathering, but for the members we support on the ground.”

An unplanned challenge the Marauders faced while under the snow was a base-wide power outage, ultimately a non-issue, thanks to a diesel fuel-powered generator, which the host wing’s civil engineers ensured ran smoothly.

“The 28th Bomb Wing provide us tremendous support,” Daniel said. “They recognize the importance of our mission and bent over backward to ensure mission success.

“They had a team of communications squadron Airmen who also had to bed down in order to ensure our networks were working,” he continued. “The civil engineer squadron was also on-call to dig us out, and more importantly, ensured our power sources remained running.”

Daniel expressed his pride in the Airmen of the 89th ATKS for their dedication, as well as his thanks to the 28th BW for their support.

“For three days and two nights, through our four combat lines, we flew 136 hours of persistent attack and reconnaissance, which provided crucial intel and pattern-of-life development for six enemy high-value individuals,” Daniel said. “Also during that time, we were tagged to support three raids, executed two, and friendlies were successful with no losses.

“There’s a gratitude and sense of pride in knowing the whole team is coming together to support the mission.”