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552 ACW supports unique POTUS mission

A picture of Port of Spain, Trinidad, taken from a helicopter at 2,000 feet. (US Air Force Photo courtesy of Capt. Jason Rooks)

A picture of Port of Spain, Trinidad, taken from a helicopter at 2,000 feet. (US Air Force Photo courtesy of Capt. Jason Rooks)

Capt. Jason Rooks, 960 AACS, was escorted around Trinidad in a Special Unit Air Assault Team helicopter with high fidelity optics and sensors. (US Air Force Photo courtesy of Capt. Jason Rooks)

Capt. Jason Rooks, 960 AACS, was escorted around Trinidad in a Special Unit Air Assault Team helicopter with high fidelity optics and sensors. (US Air Force Photo courtesy of Capt. Jason Rooks)

Tinker AFB. Okla. -- Airmen from the 552nd Air Control Wing are accustomed to travelling to various parts of the world, but a recent mission in support of the President of the United States brought some unique opportunities (and challenges) to the crewmembers and support personnel onboard.

The 960th Airborne Air Control Squadron was tasked to "provide 24-hour coverage of airspace security and surveillance for the fifth Summit of the Americas held in the Port of Spain, Trinidad," said Capt. Jason Rooks, flight commander, 960 AACS.

There is no wide area surveillance based in Trinidad, explained Captain Rooks, so to ensure that all aircraft flying in and around the island during the summit could be identified, the E-3 AWACS was employed to fly 24-hour operations. If an unidentified aircraft was located in a restricted zone and was not adhering to the published flight restrictions, then commanders would be informed and able to take appropriate action immediately.

"Several procedures were in place to ensure that if an aircraft acted suspiciously or in a hostile manner, it could be taken care of or neutralized before it could threaten the POTUS or other delegates," he said.

Captain Rooks was one of only a few crewmembers who worked at the Operational Command Center in Trinidad. "It was pretty fast-paced," he said of the 12-hour shifts. "I had never operated in an environment like that where I was given the authority to make things happen."

During this trip, Captain Rooks was completely devoted to the protection of the President, the highest order of National Security and said it was neat to see how it all comes together. "It was an awesome opportunity to see how to bring multiple national and joint agencies together into a cohesive mission."

While Captain Rooks and three other air battle managers were in Trinidad working in the Operational Command Center, the E-3 Sentries and the majority of the 552 ACW Airmen were working off-site in Barbados.

"We provided 24-hour surveillance for the President," said Airman First Class Lee David Thorpe, air surveillance technician, 960 AACS. "During that time, we gathered as much information as possible to ensure that any potential threat, with the help of the assets under our control, could be averted in a timely manner."

The AWACS crews were busy from takeoff to landing on the long sorties; some lasting up to 14 hours, according to Tech. Sgt. William Reynolds, senior surveillance technician, 960 AACS. "The missions themselves were standard surveillance mission," he said. "Track, identify, and provide the air picture to ground commanders."

During the three-day summit, the crews provided 79 hours of continuous coverage, helping to ensure the safety of the President of the US and 34 other leaders from various nations.

"In my opinion, the crews did very well," said Airman Thorpe, "and it was very rewarding to take part in such a successful mission."

Moreover, the Airmen accomplished all of this with lacking resources. "We went to a location that had no facilities set up for us," said Sergeant Reynolds. The crew had to establish a workspace, a place to store classified equipment, a briefing room, and set up radios and computers in one big warehouse. "We were able to accomplish the mission, but I think the situation may have caught everyone off guard."

Airman Thorpe agreed. "The challenge of establishing a base of operations and flying E-3s out of a dusty warehouse was very steep, but to have it go off with the level of success that it did is something pretty amazing."

On a positive note, the cramped conditions provided a great opportunity for the aircrew and support Airmen to work in close quarters and get a more intimate perspective of each other's roles.

As a member of the aircrew at Tinker, Airman Thorpe rarely sees all of the work that goes into getting the jet up into the air; but on this trip, he thought it was cool to see the full spectrum of AWACS operations.

"We normally take a bus straight to the jet. You rarely interact with, or even see the Airmen working behind the scenes to make the wheels get off the runway," Airman Thorpe said. "In Barbados, however, everyone (security forces, maintainers, communications troops, intelligence, SARM, staff members, and even the tanker aircrews) operated out of one little warehouse-type building. You really got a chance to see and appreciate, first-hand, the fact that without all jobs being fulfilled, none can be."

While the mission-related facilities were primitive, the lodging accommodations were the opposite extreme. "The hotel we stayed at was VERY nice," said Sergeant Reynolds. The crew in Barbados enjoyed the opportunity to hang out at the beach and experience the local culture.

"The atmosphere was fun and festive with music, food, drinks, and lots of souvenir vendors," said Airman Thorpe. "The locals were very nice; you rarely walked past one without getting some form of verbal greeting."

On the other hand, where Captain Rooks was working in Trinidad, travel was restricted due to security concerns and the high crime rate. However, he still managed to have some unique experiences.

The embassy provided transportation around the island for the personnel working in the OCC. At one point, Captain Rooks was escorted across town in a helicopter by the Special Unit Air Assault Team (the equivalent of the US Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team) because traffic was too congested!

He also felt compelled to try the local delicacy, pickled chicken feet. "You eat it toes, skin, bone and all," he said.

Without a doubt, the 552 ACW Airmen who went on this trip had a memorable experience, but also fulfilled an extremely important POTUS support mission, critical to the security of our nation. Captain Rooks sums it up, "I think we represented the US well and left lasting impressions on them."