It’s just shy of 6 a.m. and the temperature at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, teeters around 20 below zero, with an accompanying wind chill, so vicious, exposed skin feels like it is burning. As far as Senior Airman Joshua Serafin, a crewchief with the 69th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron is concerned, it’s a perfect time to wake up his baby – a B-52 Stratofortress bomber cleverly named Neanderthal.
The day’s schedule has him prepping the jet for an eight-hour cross-country mission to deliver a weapons payload over a series of range targets. This is the same type of mission that is currently targeting bunkers, tunnels and command posts to disrupt Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) operations throughout Iraq.
A tremendous amount of confidence is placed on Serafin’s shoulders – nuclear maintainers like him are what stand between the successful launch of the mission or aircraft never leaving the ground.
After hours of preflight checks, ensuring all maintenance actions are signed off and validating mission requirements with the piloting crew, Serafin pulls the chalks and renders one last salute. The B-52 hits the runway, throttles forward and leaves behind its signature black cloud of “freedom.”
Regardless of the freezing temperature, Serafin understands the sacrifices needed to conduct the mission and the importance its efforts have worldwide. Keeping the Air Force’s B-52 fleet mission capable plays a large role in the nation’s nuclear deterrence capabilities.
“The amount of responsibility that is assigned to nuclear maintenance crews is simply remarkable,” said Serafin. “The type of materials we supervise and the millions of dollars worth of assets we oversee validate the importance of our work and the need for us to be extraordinary at what we do.”
The weight of this responsibility isn’t lost on maintainers like Serafin, either.
“Is there stress involved – absolutely,” he said. “It takes special dedication to go to work, day-in-and-day-out, in terrible weather conditions. It takes special dedication to work shifts that never see the sun. It takes special dedication to learn the dozens of systems on an aircraft that is twice your age.”
It’s this “special dedication” that motivates Airman to turn wrenches in the excruciatingly cold temperatures on Minot’s flightline, the sweltering heat and humidity at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, and the arid and dusty conditions at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.
These Airmen know that nuclear deterrence has been the bedrock of U.S. national defense since World War II. They also know that, so long as other countries possess nuclear weapons that could be used against the U.S. and its allies, there must remain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal to deter attacks.
“Often times the job is very difficult and you have to look at the broader importance,” Serafin said. “I specifically remember being caught in temperatures so cold, and winds so strong, that I literally thought I was going to freeze to death – it had to of been around negative 40. The wind was cutting through every layer of my clothing, but I knew we needed to launch the jet.
“In between multiple trips to fix maintenance problems and to thaw myself, we finally were able to launch the aircraft. Times like those you never forget, because you remember everything you did to make the mission a success.”
Maintaining a ready force through challenging times
Extreme temperatures and long work hours aside, maintaining the aging B-52 fleet is not without its challenges. As with any aging aircraft, the older the bomber gets, the more it takes to keep it flying.
From the lowest ranking maintainer to mid-tier supervisors to senior squadron leadership, each layer of the maintenance squadron plays a role in keeping the B-52 fleet mission ready.
“The maintainers under my command deal with many challenging situations when it comes to performing the job and being able to launch jets,” said 1st Lt. Travis Charfauros, a maintenance officer with the 69th Aircraft Maintenance Unit. “From weather and equipment, to the hours and manning – each presents a new set of issues that we need to overcome.
“However, each time these challenges arise, I am confident that the mission will continue without a hitch. Some call it resilience, others call it a lifestyle, but bottom line, it’s factored on the training, determination and mental toughness that each of my Airmen possess. And, it’s truly something they pride themselves on.”
None of these challenges are new, and today’s B-52 maintainers understand what it takes to overcome them: Learning from the past and developing strong, cohesive teams.
“Almost all of the issues that we face today, have been seen before – just look at the age of the aircraft and the missions we are a part of. The nuclear age started in the 40’s and these particular aircraft were born in the 50s,” said Charfauros. “What I think is important to key in on is how well a team is able to actively adjust to unforeseen changes, work together, and stay positive.
“I know for a fact that one of the reasons my B-52 maintainers are able to overcome difficult times is because of the pride they have in the mission. Knowing that you provide lifesaving capabilities to troops on the ground and deterrence for the U.S. and our allies is motivation and satisfaction all in itself. There is nothing like it.”
Today, more than 70 years after the development of the first atomic bomb, there are more than half a dozen nuclear capable states possessing a combined estimate of 15,000 nuclear warheads. More than 90 percent of this nuclear arsenal belongs to Russia and the United States.
Though the reality of an attack may not be what it was during the Cold War era, according to U.S. intelligence reports and statements by the Trump administration, nuclear capable nations, such as North Korea, keep nuclear deterrence an important part of the U.S.’s defense strategy.
“North Korea continues to launch missiles, develop its nuclear weapons program, and engage in threatening rhetoric and behavior,” said Jim Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, during an address in Seoul, South Korea. “America’s commitments to defending our allies and to upholding our extended deterrence guarantees remain ironclad: Any attack on the United States, or our allies, will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming.”
Spearheading this response are Airmen maintainers scattered across the globe, braving extreme weather to ensure that, if called upon, their bombers are ready.