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Saturday, July 5, 2014

Missions change, but team endures

BY RICK PLUMLEE
The Wichita Eagle

For 66 years, this Kansas Air National Guard wing always had a flying mission.

Propeller planes during World War II. F-84 Shooting Star jets in the 1950s. F-100s when it was activated in 1968 following the North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo. F16s of the 1980s.

It became the nation's first Air Guard unit to fly a heavy bomber, the B-1B, in 1994. The 2000s brought the KC-135 tankers.

"It was an adventure," said Joe Lara, a maintenance crew chief for the unit from 1962 to the early 1990s. "We were a team."

The team remains. The mission is far different.

The wing put away its flying mission entirely in 2008 and focused on gathering intelligence. The 184th Intelligence Wing — the unit's 12th name since it was launched as the 127th Observation Squadron in August 1941 — goes about its work without touching an aircraft.

Friday night, about 200 current and former members of the unit gathered for a 70th reunion at the Kansas Aviation Museum, across the road from McConnell Air Force Base, where the 184th is based.

They gathered around tables filled with old pictures and swapped tales. Some old-timers shook their heads at the thought of their unit no longer having a flying mission.

"Very strange. Weird," said Bill Quint, a weapons and munitions supervisor for the unit from 1949 to 1979 — after he served in the Army during World War II. "But the younger folks are a lot more technology smarter than we were."

Sharp folks who may have begun with the unit as aircraft mechanics now sit behind computers, grabbing information fed from unmanned aircraft flying primarily over Afghanistan and Iraq.

Around the clock, seven days a week, they analyze the data and often feed intelligence reports back to troops on the ground.

"Do I missing flying?" asked Col. John Hernandez, the wing's commander.

He spent a decade as a Navy pilot before joining the Kansas Air National Guard wing 15 years ago and flew the B-1 bomber.

"Every day I miss it," Hernandez said. "There's not a day I hear a jet and don't look up. But in a perfect world, I would get to do the intel stuff and get strapped into jets.

"So this job is far from an also-ran."

The 184th is one of only three Air National Guard wings across the country that does this work. Five of the nation's Air Force bases also do it.

Most of what they do is classified. Hernandez explained in as much detail as he's allowed.

Data sensors on the Predator and U-2 unmanned aircraft feed information to a large room filled with computers and 184th members, who have a variety of intelligence specialties. Sometimes they talk with troops on the ground, using chatter wrapped in security.

"If you watch a police helicopter video, you see people walking around," Hernandez said. "What's going on? You don't know. You need context. You need a trained eye to put it in context."

That's what the 184th's intelligence analysts do. Put it all in context.

"Sometimes a war fighter needs pivotal information, like 'Do you see anything on the road ahead of me?' " Hernandez said, using a simplified language.

Sometimes intel is needed about more than what the bad guys are doing.

"'Should I turn left or turn right?' 'No, there are three people on a rooftop and one of them is a child,' " Hernandez said. "That's the kind of information you need, particularly in the up-close combat.

"We can't just shoot our way in and out of something. That requires intelligence."

The 184th isn't all about intelligence. Some of its 1,400 members, including about 600 who are full time and stationed at McConnell, do such things as civil engineering, air traffic control, medical services, communications and munitions. About 80 members serve at the guard's Smoky Hills range near Salina.

About a third of the wing is strictly intelligence.

"That's the meat and potatoes of what we do," said Maj. Jess Sojka, the wing's executive officer.

A unique job, evolving from the war on terrorism over the last decade.

On Sept. 10, 2001 — the day before 9/11 — the 184th was assigned to fly KC-135R tankers. Almost exactly a year later, the shift an intelligence unit began. Hernandez was put in charge of making that happen.

In 2006, one of the wing's squadrons began doing intelligence missions by analyzing information gained from the Predator.

Although intelligence still wasn't the wing's official task, $6 million worth of equipment was installed and $10 million in construction was completed. Two years later, three squadrons had shifted to intelligence and the unit was renamed to fit its mission.

"Our grand opening came after we were completely established," Hernandez said.

Sometimes the need rushes ahead of the paperwork. And the need was ever growing as commanders in the field demanded more and more intelligence.

The 184th took another step up last summer, when it became the first Guard unit to begin analyzing data gained from the U-2.

To make all that happen, scores of trained air mechanics had to spend up to a year being trained to handle intelligence. Not an easy shift.

Charlie Ballard was a jet engine mechanic on the B-1 bomber when he joined the 184th in 1998. He shifted to intelligence in 2007 and is now an analyst.

"It just goes back to the discipline to do what you need to do," he said. "I'm just as excited about doing intel as I was the B-1s. We have to carry on our legacy."

No more jets taking off, feeling the thrill of a mission in the air.

But the 184th's wings really haven't been clipped.

"Everyone looked after each other," said Quint, recalling his days as a former weapons and munitions supervisor. "Generals to privates, we were all guardsmen from Kansas. The guard was family."

Then he gazed across the chatty crowd and added, "Looks like they still are."

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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