TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – “In a way, the [Operations Support Squadron] is this sort of clandestine element,” said Staff Sgt. Sony K. Luangphone, 60th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control landing systems technician. “If you don’t hear about us, it means we’re doing a good job. It’s the nature of our job to work behind the scenes to ensure that those frontline Airmen who are deploying have a reliable means to carry out their mission in the event that a disaster strikes.”
That disaster struck on August 25, 2017. Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Texas’s gulf coast as a Category 4 storm with winds of 130 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Over the course of the next month, Harvey would leave hundreds of thousands of Texans without power and bring about a death toll of 77 in its wake.
Despite the enormity of Harvey’s destruction, it was the quick action of Travis’ 60th OSS that helped to mitigate the harm the storm caused to Texas’s southeast region.
“The entire radar system that ties into Oakland, Sacramento—anything in this airspace that has directly gone out to affected areas has been using Travis’ radar, weather systems, radio frequencies and navigational landing systems,” said Luangphone. “The viability of these systems was a direct result of the work this team has done. Our core objective was to make sure our equipment was operational at all times so the mission never hiccupped.”
Harvey, the first Category 4 hurricane to make landfall in the United States since Hurricane Charley in 2004, was the first of many natural disasters the 60th OSS would support relief efforts for this season. Over the next three months, three more major storms would make landfall in the United States, including two other Category 4 hurricanes. An earthquake would also strike and devastate central México, and wildfires in Northern California would burn over 200,000 acres forcing residents from their homes.
Staff Sgt. Christopher A. Spears, a 60th OSS weather forecaster, knew the importance of giving minute-to-minute updates on the statuses of the hurricanes.
“Essentially, it came down to relating the data we were receiving to the mission for wing leadership,” said Spears. “Overlooking even the smallest detail can turn an incident into a nightmare, and that’s a fact this office tries to keep in mind every day we’re relied upon to give our analysis. Our input as to the location and intensity of the storms’ landfalls helped to give an idea of what level of support was needed in the affected areas.”
The knowledge of having been involved in an effort that saved lives was exhilarating, said Spears.
In a force whose members have a myriad of reasons for joining, saving lives can sometimes seem like an intangible, if not unrealistic, reason for showing up every day. For Airman 1st Class Joey H. Hinrichs, a 60th OSS flight equipment maintainer, however, the jobs performed by each member of the U.S. Air Force contribute to its continued operations in every arena of its mission.
“To me, this is why we joined,” said Hinrichs. “I joined to hopefully help someone somewhere someday. We’re all a team here and I don’t see anyone as dispensable. We all did our jobs and to that extent, we were able to help people and keep their lives from falling apart.”
It’s the culture of selfless regard for the well-being of others that sits at the heart of the 60th OSS and propels those Airmen assigned to it to competently and enthusiastically participate in their mission. As passionate as the 60th OSS Airmen worked in the accomplishing of their missions in Texas, Florida, California and México, there are those for whom the mission became personal.
“I have family in Houston, Corpus Christi and in Florida,” said Senior Airman Marissa N. Varnes, 60th OSS air traffic controller. “Participating in these reach missions and getting security forces, fire personnel and others to the places and people that needed their help was a great feeling knowing I was helping make a difference.”
A native of Louisiana and a survivor of both Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Katrina, Luangphone also felt a more personal urge to help those affected. In spite of his heroic efforts and the lives he had a hand in helping, Luangphone ultimately regarded the recent relief efforts as just another day in the office.
“We’re always ‘on,’” said Luangphone. “The mission doesn’t stop because of the success of the most recent operation. We don’t do it for praise or accolades. We do it because our equipment needs to stay operational—because the mission always needs to continue.”