Ravens help protect deployed C-17 crews

  • Published
  • By Dean Siemon
  • Northwest Guardian
During a routine inspection in January on a remote airfield in the Central African Republic, Senior Airman Chase Vento discovered a teenage boy hiding in the wheel well for the landing gear of a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft.

"He told me that he was trying to get to Tanzania to see his mom," Vento said.

But the aircraft was actually transporting Rwandan soldiers home after the humanitarian mission was complete. If the boy hadn't been discovered, the odds are he would have been crushed by retracting landing gear or frozen once the aircraft reached altitude.

Vento brought him down without resistance or struggle as the local authorities arrived. It was a first-time experience for Vento and his fellow 627th Security Forces Squadron Phoenix Ravens -- a group established to provide security support for the U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command and units at McChord Field on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Vento's experience resembled an incident in 1991 when a frozen corpse was found frozen to death in an aircraft's wheel well upon arriving to the U.S. from a mission in the Philippines.

"They realized there were issues with security," said Maj. Matthew Foisy, unit commander for 627th SFS. "One of the reasons why the Ravens came to be."

Rise of a Phoenix

When McChord Field became part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord more than three years ago, the 627th Security Forces Squadron was established with 120 Airmen authorized. Twenty-one of them were designated "Ravens" to provide flight line security for aircraft flying to missions from McChord Field.

"Whenever you see something flare up in whatever country you're seeing in the media, Raven missions are probably going to increase to that region," Foisy said.

The Raven section of the squadron recruits internally. Airmen undergo a three-week in-house, pre-selection training process that tests resiliency, hand-to-hand combat skills using mixed martial arts, analysis of security situations and identification of threats to the aircraft. The evaluations take place in a variety of airfield and battlefield settings.

After completing the internal program, trainees go to the Air Force Expeditionary Center at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurts, N.J. to complete their security training. When they return, 627th SFS Ravens are capable of performing missions ranging from supporting movement of service members in and out of the Middle East during conflict to delivering supplies in humanitarian operations.

Wherever, whenever

Since joining the Phoenix Raven section of the 627th SFS in April 2012, Senior Airman Curtis McWoodson couldn't recall the number of countries he visited while providing flight line security missions for aircraft flying from McChord Field.

"I stopped counting awhile ago," McWoodson said. "It's almost hard to keep track unless you're writing every day."

It isn't uncommon for Ravens to be gone from six to eight months out of the year. Foisy said a Raven told him he was home for only three weeks in 2013, having performed missions in more than 30 countries.

Ravens are eligible for new missions upon their return from the previous one -- after only 24 to 48 hours of crew rest.

"To say they're gone two-thirds of the time is a true statement," Foisy said.

In some cases, Ravens set up staging areas in a central location like at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, to fly missions in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

"Rather than coming home every time, they're staged out of the Middle East, flying out every day for shorter missions for one month," Foisy said.

Acting as ambassadors

While Ravens are trained on methods to protect their assigned aircraft, they often have to be diplomatic, especially during missions involving refugees. Rather than being hands-on with a refugee attempting to board an aircraft, for example, the goal is to use what Foisy called "verbal judo" -- the gentle art of persuasion. Ravens' diplomacy training helped talk the teenager out of the C-17 wheel well.

"When I come in contact with a Rwandan who wants to come on my plane, I persuade them that they can't get on the plane," Foisy said. "Give them some water, an MRE, show them that we're friendly and represent the U.S. well."

If diplomacy fails and the situation dire enough, however, Ravens are also trained to gain compliance through force.

Ready for anything

Whether in a remote airfield in Africa or a battlefield in Iraq, Ravens prepare for sudden violence at any moment. They once handled an attack from hostiles in CAR during a routine humanitarian mission.

"We got struck by a .50-caliber round," said Senior Airman Paul Gonzalez. "Two vehicles on the ground were hit and a bunch of refugees were running around in the camps."Gonzalez, McWoodson and other Ravens gathered equipment and crew back onto the aircraft for cover. Moments later, they received an "all-clear" order. No information was available on what happened to the hostiles, but it was an intense moment for everyone involved.

"At first, it's kind of like a dream. It kind of catches you off guard," McWoodson said. "As you're progressing through, it hits you."

Rewarding work

Despite the long hours and time away from home, each Airman in the program said being a Raven is a rewarding experience.

"You're always away from home, but it has a lot of good memories," Vento said.

There are perks, like traveling around the world. Not only do the Ravens have a chance to sightsee while in areas like Germany and South America, but being part of humanitarian missions can be its own reward. One said it's different in person than on the television news reports.

"You get to see the troops you're bringing over and get to see that person," McWoodson said. "It's amazing to see how people can mesh in a short amount of time to accomplish the mission."