489th RS: Stand up, start running
By Senior Airman Shawn Nickel, 9th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs
/ Published December 06, 2012
BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calf. -- This is part two of a four part series highlighting the MC-12W Liberty weapons system. It has operated at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., for more than a year, reaching several milestones which support Air Force leaders as they normalize intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations.
A year ago Bldg. 1086 was a labyrinth of boxes, cubical walls and training equipment waiting to be installed. Today this same spot is home to the 489th Reconnaissance Squadron commanded by Lt. Col. Harlie Bodine.
This squadron took odds and ends from around base and turned them into a well-oiled machine where pilots, sensor operators, and tactical system operators come to train on the MC-12W Liberty weapons system.
"We came here with very little equipment from Key Field, [Miss.], but with the help of our fellow squadrons at Beale, built a squadron that trains some of the best reconnaissance Airmen in the world," Bodine said.
And Bodine has pushed the training to the limits. Utilizing weekends, holidays and nights, the 489th RS has met the demand of combatant commanders around the world by training more than 600 operators in one year.
Trainers who push these Airmen through the program are heavy on experience and ready for the task. Each instructor must earn more than 500 combat hours and fly at least 100 missions before they are eligible to teach.
"We have one of the most combat-experienced units in the Air Force," Bodine said. "After students train here, they are off to a deployment to garner their own expertise to pass along to new operators."
Originally, pilots and equipment operators from different airframes manned the MC-12W. However, Air Force leaders have now turned their attention to normalizing MC-12W ISR operations.
"Rather than releasing our experienced flow through MC-12W aircrew back to their original units, we are able to move these crews to Beale to become a permanent part [of the program]," Bodine said. "MC-12s fly more sorties than all ISR assets combined in theater."
Because of the Liberty program's high operational tempo, trainees practice like they play with the help of opposition forces at Beale.
OPFORs are all current or prior Special Forces members who pretend to be the best bad guys they can be. They travel Beale's 24,000 acres planting simulated IEDs, carrying inert rockets, and hide in vehicles or at shops around base, essentially playing an adult game of hide and seek.
Wes Shover, a joint terminal attack controller expert from the base contractor Rally Point Management, said having trainers who have utilized the MC-12W downrange makes training more realistic and useful.
"Having the MC-12 overhead is an invaluable asset," he said. "We do our best to make sure radio traffic and movements mimic what we have experienced in real life. After we train a crew and we hear the success stories coming back, it is a huge reward to know we were part of that."
The dedicated bad guys say a lot of people think all they do is go out and drive roads having a good time joking around. However, they adhere to strict guidelines and scenarios to ensure all the MC-12W aircrew and Distributed Ground Station training objectives are met daily.
"It takes practice and special training to be a bad guy and there are rules to make sure we are giving the guys in the plane what they need," Shover said.
Although OPFORs are known as bad guys running around the base, they also play part of the blue team, simulating U.S. or coalition forces.
"Our job in real life is to find, fix, and finish the bad guys, but to me it is just as important to save the good guys," said Staff Sgt. Dave, 489th RS sensor operator. "Without OPFOR playing both sides as well as they do, we wouldn't be successful at either mission."
Bodine said combining Beale's open spaces and OPFORs with more than 200 days of sunshine a year makes Beale the perfect training environment. After Airmen become proficient in their ISR skill in the 489th RS, they transfer to the 427th RS and become permanent warriors at Beale.