AFTAC mission reaches far beyond shores of Florida’s Space Coast

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- From the parching, arid deserts of Northwest Africa to the frigid, sub-zero temps of Antarctica, Airmen from the Air Force Technical Applications Center work in a multitude of austere environments to keep their no-fail mission going.

AFTAC is the Department of Defense’s sole nuclear treaty monitoring center tasked with 24/7/365 coverage of worldwide seismic activity. With its 17 detachments, six manned operating locations and more than 60 unmanned operating locations across the globe, AFTAC’s footprint is on every continent, ensuring the nation’s senior decision makers have the necessary scientific data and analysis to make informed decisions in the event of a potential nuclear detonation.

Recently, AFTAC Airmen traveled to Africa and Antarctica to perform annual routine maintenance on data collection and processing equipment. The teams also conducted full inventories at the sites and replaced solar batteries used to power the stations. The seismic equipment is used to detect activity caused by naturally-occurring events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or lightning strikes, as well as man-made events such as mining activity or nuclear explosions.

AFTAC’s long-range nuclear detection mission verifies compliance with established test ban treaties, primarily the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty and the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty. The center is also the designated U.S. laboratory system that provides technical support to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Antarctica site, located 1,200 miles north of the South Pole in Vanda, supports the International Monitoring System as part of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, and is one of thousands of sensors within AFTAC’s global network. In addition to providing seismic information to U.S. decision makers, the data from these sensors also help scientific and academic communities at large.

Senior Airman Dillon Gibbs, an AFTAC geophysical maintenance technician and team lead for the Antarctica trip, traveled for the second time to the South Pole region with three other AFTAC technicians, Staff Sgt. Michael Farrar, Tech. Sgt. Aaron Boyle and Staff Sgt. Jeremy Hannah.

“One of the primary things we wanted to accomplish on our trip was to perform preventive maintenance routines to ensure all the equipment was fully operational,” said Gibbs. “Antarctica is a very unforgiving location, and we can’t travel there as easily as we can to other sites, so we have to be extra careful to check and recheck our work to make sure the equipment fully capable to capture seismic data for our analysts back in the States.”

Travel to the earth’s southernmost point is not without its own set of challenges. The maintenance team flew via commercial air to New Zealand and from there flew on an Air Force C-17 to McMurdo Station, a U.S. research center on the tip of the continent. To get to their final destination, Gibbs and his fellow Airmen took a helicopter for the one-hour flight to Vanda.

Once the team completed four days of maintenance in Vanda’s Dry Valley, a helicopter transported the team to the top of nearby Mt. Newall for an additional four days before returning to McMurdo Station to wrap up required maintenance actions on AFTAC’s solar generators and wind turbines, better known as hybrid power stations.

As the four-man team at the South Pole battled bitter temperatures and ice-covered terrain, a three-person AFTAC team navigated zephyr winds and jungle heat at two North Africa seismic locations – Morocco and Côte D’Ivoire. In addition to annual preventive maintenance, the team replaced broadband instruments and repaired borehole components, as well as calibrated instruments and replaced a solar power source.

Staff Sgt. Jacob Caron served as the team lead for the Africa journey. Joining him were Staff Sgts. Steven Milliman and Kia Canady.

“One of the aspects of traveling to these sites I enjoy most is training host nation personnel who operate and maintain the equipment year-round,” said Caron, a geophysical maintenance supervisor. “While we’re there to conduct an annual review to ensure the hardware is operational and up-to-speed, the Moroccans and Ivorians are the ones who are around the equipment every day, so we spend a great deal of time listening to everything they have to say.”

The treaty monitoring center, headquartered at Patrick AFB, Fla., prides itself on being on the leading edge of technological research and verification technologies.

“The skill and level of expertise these Airmen possess are unparalleled, and they truly have their fingerprints all over our global sensor network,” said Col. Steven M. Gorski, commander of the center. “In addition to their incredible technical abilities, they also serve as representatives of our organization and the Air Force at large to our international partners. It fills me with great pride when I see them achieving such tremendous success while working closely with the host nation experts. Their dedication under austere conditions gives us the ability to provide our senior leaders in Washington with the data they need to make critical, informed decisions.”