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Vandenberg's ACOs: An essential space launch entity

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Airman 1st Class Tricia Tiggeman, a Texas native, is an aerospace control officer with the 2nd Range Operations Squadron here. Airman Tiggeman was the lead ACO for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launch that occurred here Sunday, Aug. 23, 2009.  (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Airman 1st Class Andrew Lee)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Airman 1st Class Tricia Tiggeman, a Texas native, is an aerospace control officer with the 2nd Range Operations Squadron here. Airman Tiggeman was the primary ACO for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launch that occurred here Sunday, Aug. 23, 2009. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Airman 1st Class Andrew Lee)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- "The hazard area and airspace are clear and controlled; you have my green."

These words break the silence in Vandenberg's Area Control Center as the aerospace control officers give the final command, indicating all areas are safe and cleared before the launch of a rocket or missile.

Vandenberg's ACOs must be cognizant of all areas surrounding the base. Whether it is a pilot in the sky, an engineer on rails or a mariner of the ocean, the ACOs must ensure all parties are outside of the designated safety zone before giving the authority to launch.

"On the day of a launch, I am in an extremely focused state of mind," said Airman 1st Class Tricia Tiggeman, a 2nd Range Operations Squadron ACO. "Our team is constantly busy validating items on our checklists, making sure the surrounding area is cleared and controlled. Our objective is to keep everyone who is involved with the launch informed. We do everything in our ability to ensure the launch occurs at its scheduled time. It is very exciting."

Although the ACOs perform some last minute checks before deeming the designated launch area cleared on the day of a launch, the process actually begins approximately 30 days earlier. The ACOs are responsible for sending notices, as a way of communicating with the public, to inform the surrounding counties about Vandenberg's upcoming launches. These notices are a measure the ACOs use to ensure the public stays clear of launch areas on the day of a launch.

The ACOs from Vandenberg's 2nd ROPS attribute their successes over the years to training.

"We do a lot of training on console to simulate our duties on a launch day," Airman Tiggeman said. "All of our training is hands on; we go through our same routines to mimic a launch. Before an ACO is even allowed to be on console for a launch, they must pass an evaluation based on different scenarios from the simulated training."

The training and evaluations can, at times, be intimidating, especially if the ACO is a first-term Airmen, said the Texas native.

"When I first joined the Air Force, I thought I would be the low-man on the totem pole," said Airman Tiggeman, who has been an ACO for only six months. "However, the Air Force has entrusted me with an incredible amount of responsibility. The position of the ACO is directly critical for the success of Air Force missions."

The mission of a launch relies on the launch vehicle itself, and, more importantly, the preparation and dedication of groups like Vandenberg's ACOs who know how to work together.

"Teamwork is also a big part of our success," Airman Tiggeman said. "Teamwork is important because there is not one single position that can successfully conduct a launch alone. However, when Vandenberg comes together as a team, then we are able to safely and efficiently launch a rocket. If we all did not work as a team, there is no way we could make Vandenberg's launches possible."

Although there are only eight ACOs at Vandenberg, primarily working behind the scenes, they are a highly regarded, valuable asset to Vandenberg and the surrounding communities.