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Team Vandenberg gets dirty, makes flight line safer

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE, Calif. – Brooks Mabery, a Vandenberg Hot Shots captain, assists Col. Richard Boltz, 30th Space Wing commander, with the operations of the Supertrak SK 140 CTLS-C (The Masticator) at the flightline here Wednesday, March 16, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ann Blodzinski)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE, Calif. – Brooks Mabery, a Vandenberg Hot Shots captain, assists Col. Richard Boltz, 30th Space Wing commander, with the operations of the Supertrak SK 140 CTLS-C (The Masticator) at the flightline here Wednesday, March 16, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ann Blodzinski)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Members of the Vandenberg Hot Shots, 30th Space Wing leadership, 30th Medical Group and Airfield Operations Flight gather in front of The Masticator here Wednesday, March 16, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ann Blodzinski)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Members of the Vandenberg Hot Shots, 30th Space Wing leadership, 30th Medical Group and Airfield Operations Flight gather in front of The Masticator here Wednesday, March 16, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ann Blodzinski)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - The Masticator lying in wait, surrounded by brush that it will soon reduce to mere mulch here Wednesday, March 16, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ann Blodzinski)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - The Masticator lying in wait, surrounded by brush that it will soon reduce to mere mulch here Wednesday, March 16, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ann Blodzinski)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Col. Richard Boltz, 30th Space Wing commander, getting a crash course in Masticator operation from Vandenberg Hot Shots superintendant Jesse Hendricks here Wednesday, March 16, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ann Blodzinski)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Col. Richard Boltz, 30th Space Wing commander, getting a crash course in Masticator operation from Vandenberg Hot Shots superintendant Jesse Hendricks here Wednesday, March 16, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ann Blodzinski)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Capt. Jimmy West, Airfield Operations Flight commander, Chief Master Sergeant Michelle Sobel, 30th Medical Group superintendant, Jesse Hendricks, Hot Shots superintendant, and Col. Richard Boltz, 30th Space Wing commander, discuss the team effort in acquiring and operating The Masticator here Wednesday, March 16, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ann Blodzinski)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Capt. Jimmy West, Airfield Operations Flight commander, Chief Master Sergeant Michelle Sobel, 30th Medical Group superintendant, Jesse Hendricks, Hot Shots superintendant, and Col. Richard Boltz, 30th Space Wing commander, discuss the team effort in acquiring and operating The Masticator here Wednesday, March 16, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ann Blodzinski)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE, Calif. -- At first you think the worst part is the mosquitoes, or maybe it's the ticks. Then you realize that your socks are soaked. Add that to the cold, the intermittent misty drizzle, the mud, the impossibly gray sky, the rodents and the general sense of gloom and you've got the perfect setting for a dirty job.

On March 16, Colonel Richard Boltz, the 30th Space Wing commander, and Chief Master Sergeant Michelle Sobel, the 30th Medical Group superintendant, joined members of Vandenberg Air Force Base's Airfield Operations Flight and the Vandenberg Hot Shots to take on one of the dirtiest jobs Vandenberg has to offer: Clearing out the thick problematic brush around the flightline with a beastly piece of heavy machinery affectionately nicknamed "The Masticator." With so many units involved, this task proved to be a true team effort.

Weighing in at more than six tons, the job of the Supertrak SK 140 CTLS-C is to chew up anything and everything in its path (hence its call-sign). Think of it as the world's most devastating lawnmower. This machine, which has muscle enough to take down full-grown trees if called to do so, tackles the head-high brush with vicious elegance. Even more impressive than The Masticator is the collection of individuals and units that have worked hard to put it to good use at Vandenberg.

Capt. Jimmy West, Airfield Operations Flight commander from Fremont, California, knows the importance of working as a team to get the mission accomplished. Receiving high-priority air traffic such as the X-37 orbital test vehicle and the Global Hawk remotely piloted aircraft takes months of interagency coordination and preparation. This holds true between organizations at Vandenberg as well.

"It's about relationships," Captain West said. "We have relationships all throughout this base and they mean a lot to us."

One of these relationships is with the 30th Civil Engineer Squadron. The hope of acquiring The Masticator germinated some six years ago within the 30th CES, with the idea being that it would serve as a premium asset for the their Hot Shots crew. The Vandenberg Hot Shots are a group of highly-skilled firefighters specially trained in wildfire suppression tactics. They had their hearts set on The Masticator to help make Vandenberg safer from California's infamous wildfires.

"We could definitely use it to help widen fuel breaks and clear around base assets and facilities at a moment's notice," said Jesse Hendricks, the Hot Shots superintendant.

The majority of The Masticator's usage would be focused on fire prevention and additional projects such as clearing out areas around base power lines to give access to maintainers and around pipelines near space launch complexes to ensure pipeline integrity.

While the Hot Shots were compiling justification for the purchase of The Masticator, Captain West and his team had their hands full battling an ongoing issue at the airfield. Vandenberg's abundant wildlife is wondrous and generally welcomed, but animals sometimes create problems on base. The flightline is one area where wildlife was causing trouble. Deer, birds, coyotes and other wildlife have made it a habit to hide in the 80 acres of brush surrounding the airfield. If one of these noble beasts runs onto the flight line as an aircraft lands it could cause a crash and cost lives. The solution: masticate the brush so that the airfield operations flight can ensure no wildlife will cause a dangerous situation.

Airfield operations and the 30th CES joined efforts and approached leadership about Vandenberg's need for The Masticator. The request was approved and The Masticator arrived last November. The Hot Shots put it to good use immediately. So far, 71 of the 80 acres of brush around the airfield have been cleared.

"It's now a safer, more secure airfield," Captain West said.

The Hot Shots have also used The Masticator on two other projects so far, clearing areas around Vandenberg's water tanks and one of its shooting ranges. More projects are already in the works.

Colonel Boltz and Chief Sobel came out to help tackle the last nine acres of airfield brush. While Hendricks explained the controls and specifications of The Masticator, Brooks Mabery, Hot Shots captain, manned the controls and gave the group a demonstration of its authority over the landscape. Both Mabery and Hendricks are local natives, raised in Lompoc and Orcutt respectively, who joined the Hot Shots as crewmembers and worked their way up to leadership positions. Though the job is as dirty as they come, these two Hot Shots love it.

"It's a big kid's toy," said Mabery. "When we're going to work with it I'm excited. It's a fun day coming to work."
After the demonstration it was time for Colonel Boltz to strap in. He performed like a natural and looked to be having as much fun as the Hot Shots. Smiling and stepping down from The Masticator's cockpit, Colonel Boltz notes how "You could really work off some aggression with that thing."

Last up to bat was Chief Sobel, who was recently stationed at Vandenberg after her last assignment as 60th Dental Squadron superintendant at Travis Air Force Base.

"Being a dental assistant by trade, I'm very familiar with the grinding and chewing up of things when it comes to our teeth, but this was on a whole other level," said Chief Sobel.

So far the Masticator has been a useful tool in improving the base and making it safer in multiple ways. Watching the machine in action, its sheer power is impressive, but as it cuts down brush you sense that there is something far more powerful at work than its pistons and teeth. It is a special thing to see the culmination of a team effort, and it becomes all the more special when that culmination involves that down-in-the-trenches type of work that can only be described as a dirty job.