America’s 89th AW—best of the best

US Air Force’s SAM FOX carries ranking leaders using mixed fleet of 18 Boeing and Gulfstream aircraft.

1AS Flight Attendant MSgt Tangella Brown serves as the operations superintendent for the squadron.

Joint Base Andrews host unit is the 316th Wing (316 WG)—one of 3 wings and a group reporting to the Air Force District of Washington (AFDW). As host wing, 316 WG operates, administers and maintains the base.

After the wing stood up in Jun 2006, the 1st Helicopter Squadron (1 HS) was transferred from 89 AW to the 316th Operations Group (316 OG). Today the squadron’s 15 Bell UH1Ns are used to provide quick-reaction rotary-wing airlift in the National Capital Region.

The name SAM FOX, forever associated with the 89th, was originally part of an aircraft call sign designating Special Air Missions (SAM) Foreign (FOX). Use of this call sign differentiated VIP missions from other military and civilian flights.

In time the term SAM FOX came to symbolize the 89th’s pride in achieving what it refers to as “the gold standard.” So far this fiscal year, 89AW has conducted 889 missions in 101 countries, and the mission reliability rate stands at 99.2%.

Team spirit

Col Steven Harrison is the commander of 89 AW. Commissioned from the US Air Force Academy in 1988, he is a 3400-hr pilot (all fixed-wing). Before taking up the reins at 89 AW in Jan 2009, Harrison was commander of 436 AW at DOV (Dover AFB, Dover DE).

Commanding 89 OG is Col Monty Perry, who is a qualified C37 aircraft commander. With 22 years of USAF service, Perry is a 4400-hr pilot who came to ADW in Jun 2009 after an assignment at the Pentagon and another assignment flying C37s with 310 AS at MCF (MacDill AFB, Tam­pa FL).

A command tour is typically 2 years. Perry notes that pilot tours (controlled tours) are typically 4 years, but that “most of them wish it could be far longer.” Understandably, 89 AW is a much desired posting. In fact, being the Air Force’s only selectively manned “big jet” unit, pilots are hand-picked.

Perry underlines that those selected are USAF officers and NCOs first, pilots second. Pilots for 89 AW need a minimum 2500 hrs TT—preferably 3000-plus—with at least 250 hrs as an instructor pilot (IP) and experience as an evaluator pilot (EP).

1 AS Flying Crew Chief SSgt Siegfried Herrmann in the cockpit of a C32A.

The 89th doesn’t look at fighter or bomber pilots—instead, it requires applicants to possess an exemplary flight record, be eligible for Presidential security clearance and have experience of worldwide operations.

Professional military education (PME) and other advanced education are also major assets. Each hiring board reviews an average of 40–50 applicants. Of these, between 20 and 30 will be accepted for interview and even fewer will actually make it into the 89th.

These days, administrative work absorbs much of Perry’s time, but in a normal month he flies at least 1 mission and 1 training flight. Since 316 WG is responsible for base infra­structure, 89 OG is able to focus fully on operations.

“My subordinate leadership has this place wired,” he says. Perry’s priorities are “to try to be as innovative as possible and make it easy for people to make recommendations.”

This is achieved in part through an “active suggestion program” which ensures that recommendations are treated seriously and given due consideration. “We have these great aircraft,” reflects Perry, “but our real heart is the people.”

On-the-job training

Success in obtaining a posting to the 89th is only the start, of course, and pilot training takes place at different sites depending on aircraft type.

C32 initial training takes place at Flight Training Intl, while C40 pilots train with Boeing. Pilots attend FlightSafety Intl (FSI) DAL (Love, Dallas TX) and the 89 OSS Executive Airlift Training Center (EATC) at ADW for C20 initial training and FSI SAV (Savannah GA) for C37 upgrade training.

99 AS CC Lt Col Preston Williamson (L) and DO Lt Col Chris Thompson in the front office of a Gulfstream C37A.

No undertaking as complex and demanding as the operations of the 89th could be successful without the skills of a highly trained team working in concert. The flight engineers, who serve as crewmembers on the C20s and C37s, play a vital role here, as they preflight the aircraft for pilots, run checklists, serve as an additional set of aircrew eyes, and provide maintenance skills away from home base.

Communication systems operators (CSOs) keep leaders and DVs connected with their offices while on the road. Trained to be able to set up and troubleshoot local area networks (LANs), they are key to maintaining onboard connectivity at all times.

Flight attendants—the most visible of all crewmembers since DVs and other passengers interact with them constantly—may join the 89th from any Air Force specialty and are generally NCOs or first-term airmen eligible for retraining. Primary duties are passenger safety and comfort, as well as food preparation and service.

Building missions

At the 89th, all schedules are done in-house at the Squadron Ops Centre (SOC), which is divided into 1 AS and 99 AS ops.

While missions are “built” in the Pentagon, they are coordinated at SOC. Mission Operations is the heart of operational mission planning. 89 OSS Dep Chief, Mission Ops Joe Flynn has been with the 89th as a civilian since 2000, but previously spent 5 1/2 years as a crewmember.

89 OSS Commander Lt Col Al Smith (L) and Executive Air Training Center Chief VIPSAM Formal Training Unit Lt Col Jeff Anderson.

In fact, most of the 9 civilians who staff the office are ex-89th navigators. Employing ex-89th civilians brings experience and continuity and all but eliminates turnover, says Flynn. 89 AW executes around 1000 missions annually, so determining airfield suitability, maintaining liaison with embassies and obtaining diplomatic clearance requests are important tasks.

“CONUS missions are generic and very easy,” says Flynn. “Overseas missions are more challenging, but we have a good relationship with the embassies and we all know what we’re chartered to do.”

Since every overseas mission requires a full briefing in advance, the SOC also has its own inhouse intelligence and tactics team.


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