Academy grad pulls first missile alert

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jason Wiese
  • 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Every career begins with a first day on the job. Everyone has been the newbie at some point.

So it goes in the world of nuclear deterrence.

Early October, 2nd Lt. Holley Macpherson, a 320th Missile Squadron deputy missile combat crew commander, took a major step in her career. She manned a launch control center (LCC) for the first time.

Macpherson received a commission to the U.S. Air Force in May 2013, and attended pilot training shortly after.

In March 2014, Macpherson attended initial skills training at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, for five months to learn the basics of missile operations.

"They taught us a lot," she said. "They couldn't teach us everything because you can't show everything in a trainer, but they tried to throw all the standard scenarios at us they could with the equipment we have down there."

After graduation and reporting to F.E. Warren AFB, even more training lay ahead for Macpherson, but after about a month on station, she was ready for her first alert, she said.

After her lengthy Air Force introduction, on Oct. 9 Macpherson made her first descent into a LCC in the F.E. Warren missile complex for her first alert.

Two-person missileer teams man the underground LCCs for 24-hour shifts, directing topside activities and monitoring the Minuteman III weapon system sorties their flight areas control.

Macpherson described the climate-controlled LCC as feeling somewhat like the inside of a pressurized airplane cabin.

"We basically monitor, make sure all our sorties in the flight area are doing (well)," she said. "We're in charge of all the people out there, too."

Missileers spend much of their time on alert communicating with maintainers and other operators.

It was nice talking to real people on the other side of the phone line rather than just the instructors playing a role during a training scenario, she said.

"It was pretty similar to what we'd done in the trainers," she said. "I felt more comfortable down there than I thought I would because I had spent so much time training."

Being on alert for real felt very different from the trainer rides -- the key difference being the actual missile connected to the equipment in the LCCs. The real-world mission brings with it a lot more pressure, she said.

Although the Air Force places significant trust in the new lieutenants who pull their first alerts, the new officers don't go without help. They are paired with experienced missile combat crew commanders who are responsible for everything that goes on in their flight areas and train their deputies during their first alert shifts.

First Lt. Julianne Jamison, a 320th Missile Squadron missile combat crew commander, supervised Macpherson during her first alert and continues to do so on Macpherson's ongoing alerts. Jamison walked Macpherson through the routine tasks missileers accomplish, testing her proficiency along the way.

"She did very well," Jamison said. "I am lucky to have her as my deputy. She was just a sponge and running as much (of the mission) as she possibly could."

While in the LCCs, missileers schedule their sleep and work rhythm to ensure the LCCs are constantly manned.

Jamison said she woke up Macpherson several times during her first alert so she could witness real-world tasks being accomplished.

As the old saying goes "Smooth seas don't make skilled sailors." This is also true for the alert officers in charge of vital nuclear assets. High activity levels in the LCC make for better missileers who are more capable of handling any situation that might come their way, Jamison said.

"I always tell my deputies: 'Never be afraid to wake me up,'" she said.

Much of the time in missileer training is spent simulating worst-case scenarios, so a look of anticipation hangs on the faces of new missileers while they are on alert -- a look that says, "I'm ready for everything," Jamison said.

"She asked me during her first alert, 'When do you feel comfortable?' and I told her it is really based on what you see during your first 10 to 20 alerts," Jamison said. "I really believe you need to learn if you're going to be a future commander. It does take a while, but you build that experience over time."

Macpherson said when she first arrived with her fellow Vandenberg graduates, her squadron was very helpful in pointing them in the right direction and setting them up for success.

"Everyone's really willing to answer whatever questions you have at any time," she said.

In the short term, aside from alerts, Macpherson undergoes regular update training to keep her knowledge and job skills current. The training includes simulation trainer rides, classes and self-study. Upgrading from a deputy to a crew commander can take anywhere from months to years, depending on individual skills and progress.

"I won't have to worry about new training until I upgrade to commander, which won't be for a while," she said.