An official greeting party stands by on the flightline as the President, First Lady, and their family depart on Air Force One from Joint Base Andrews, MD. USAF photo by TSgt Robert Cloys
By MS. BRITTANY OLSON, Staff Writer
THE 89th AIRLIFT WING (89 AW) at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, is a special-duty assignment designated as the Special Air Mission (SAM), an experienced force of more than 1,100 Airmen and civilians responsible for delivering worldwide VIP airlift, logistics, communications, and aerial port for the U.S. President, Vice President, cabinet members, elected leaders, and senior military, including combatant commanders. The 89 AW also operates the Executive Airlift Training Center and Government Network Operation Center.
The 89th Mission Operations team consists of five civilian mission planners and a one-week rotation of 24/7 on-call duty officers responsible for detailed worldwide mission coordination. This includes airfield suitability, operations research, flight planning/route validation, diplomatic clearances, aircraft logistical requests, and mission package building. Planners are engaged from initial tasking throughout mission termination for all Outside the Continental United States (OCONUS) notional (suitability), tentative (tail and crew allocation, mission packages), and confirmed (officially releasable for worldwide coordination) phases of client missions aboard 89 AW’s Boeing C-32A and C-40B, and the Gulfstream C-37A/B fleet. Mission planning responsibilities are balanced among planners as they are tasked.
Planning processes at 89 AW are unique from other Air Force units, because mission requests are efficiently tasked directly from the Pentagon to the 89th. This is especially relevant with regard to missions with a high rate of itinerary changes. The 89th Mission Operations team is not solely responsible for planning and releasing confirmed missions. Rather, the team of six must also juggle planning missions while notional and tentative, which can require just as much time and preparation as confirmed missions. Furthermore, the majority of missions planned by 89 AW entail landing at commercial airports instead of military bases, because the passengers are primarily civilian government officials.
“Mission planning means different things to different units insofar as processes go. The 89th model has planners involved in all phases start-to-finish. The familiarity planners have with early versions of itineraries are helpful as missions change and serve as a continuity benefit, not only as the mission progresses, but also in odd-hour calls,” explained Joe Flynn, Manager of the 89th Mission Operations team.
“Mission planning also doesn’t necessarily come down as mission tasking, it comes down in a stovepipe from the Pentagon to the mission planner, and they will ask if we can get them into a specific field on a specific aircraft,” added John Bly, a recently retired mission planner of the 89 AW Mission Operations team.
In the notional phase of a mission, 89 AW planners must research the feasibility of the travel needs of the Pentagon’s requestors. The notional phase is research-intensive and time-consuming because planners must determine airport hours of operations, if waivers will be required, and if runways, taxiways, and ramps can bear the weight of the aircraft–basically looking for showstoppers and finding a way to meet customer travel needs.
When the 89 AW is tasked with a mission in the tentative phase, the Pentagon has validated the travel, allocated an aircraft tail while tasking the mission in a software tool called AviSource, and manually enters the party’s itinerary. The 89 AW planners are tasked with assembling the operations plan and identifying every granular logistical element of the mission. The planning process includes referencing source documents, among them the Foreign Clearance Guide, which outlines the particulars of how business should be conducted while flying over each country’s airspace and into airports enroute. Planners must accommodate the preferred routes and airports of clients and determine if the airports enroute will be open, are operable, and if they have the appropriate instrument procedures for the pilots to land and depart. For missions transiting European, African, or Mideast airspace, planes must travel through a high-density funnel point in Europe managed by the Central Flow Management Unit (CFMU) and have specific route approval to maintain safe separation between a high volume of aircraft.
“A lot of aircraft are trying to access many different destinations in very condensed airspace that is traveled day after day by commercial airliners flying for profit. One big priority of the commercials is fuel efficiency, so they’re always searching for the most optimal route for fuel burn, which is driven by wind patterns. The flow control changes every day and CFMU is not going to let you just fly through that airspace wherever you want, so planners are meticulous in ensuring they get CFMU-validated routes.” said Flynn.
Once a mission has been confirmed, the team is authorized to communicate the travel plans and secure all necessary clearances with respective embassies whose airspace, airports, and countries are on the itinerary. If the aircraft is flying within 12 nautical miles of a country’s sovereign landmass, planners must request a clearance unless one is already blanketed. If the aircraft is flying outside of the 12-nautical-mile boundary, it is considered international airspace and clearance is not necessary. Planners request an overflight for each country enroute and provide embassy officials with the requested information, which often includes the itinerary, flight route, entry/exit points, and altitude. The pilots assigned to the mission are provided with an electronic mission package, which contains flight plans, clearances, and current source documentation required for entering each airspace, airport, and country on the itinerary, which assists pilots in accomplishing Mr. John Bly Retires After 28 Years of Active Duty and 17 Years as an Air Force CivilianBefore joining the 89 AW Mission Operations team, John Bly entered the Air Force as a navigator and served for 28 years. In May of 1975 he was assigned to Dyess Air Force Base as a navigator in C-130s, and reassigned in 1981 to Joint Base Andrews where he navigated VC-135s and VC-137s, and the VC-25 until retiring from the Air Force in 2002 as an officer with more than 10,000 flying hours. Bly flew missions to 120 different countries and his passengers have included Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Five weeks after retiring from the Air Force, Bly began a civilian career as a flight planner with the United States Army Priority Air Transport (USAPAT) at Joint Base Andrews. In 2006, Bly transitioned to 89 AW as a civilian planner and retired May 31, 2019.Throughout his 17-year Air Force civilian career, Bly worked with a team of planners who were directly involved with 10,433 missions having 32,451 legs into 180 countries. The team logged 81,024 hours, 39 minutes of flight hours over 36,644,659 nautical miles of distance!He reflected on his more than 45 years. “I’ve been so fortunate to have worked with the people I have worked with. I turned 68 in May and I had no intention of working that long, but I enjoyed the job and the people I worked with. I have been blessed to be around good people. I got a chance to see things most people will never get to see, no matter how wealthy they are. We got to be part of history in a lot of cases.”their own mission study.
“U.S. Defense Attaché offices are located in embassies and they have personnel who are responsible for assisting entering crews. It is not uncommon for a flight to pass over 20 or 30 countries for just one mission, and sometimes many more. That amounts to a lot of countries, a lot of coordination, a lot of clearances, and a great deal of diligence by the planners. In addition to asking for the overflight and landing clearance at each location, we are also requesting logistical support to meet the needs of the aircraft crew and passengers such as security, hotel reservations, transportation to and from the hotel, fuel, lavatory service, conveyor belts, power carts, and air conditioners or heaters,” stated Flynn.
Over the next two years, the 89 AW will gradually increase its fleet between 40 and 67 percent, from 12 to 17, or possibly even 20 aircraft, and additions will include two Boeing C-40s and up to six additional C-37s.