30th OG prepares to win Guardian Challenge

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Senior Airman Jillian Voyles, an area control officer with the 2nd Range Operations Squadron here, tracks a contact in the water exclusion area during a simulated launch March 10. Airman Voyles is part of the 30th Operations Group Guardian Challenge team. The team will compete in Guardian Challenge March 24-26. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christian Thomas)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Senior Airman Jillian Voyles, an area control officer with the 2nd Range Operations Squadron here, tracks a contact in the water exclusion area during a simulated launch March 10. Airman Voyles is part of the 30th Operations Group Guardian Challenge team. The team will compete in Guardian Challenge March 24-26. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christian Thomas)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --  1st Lt. Erin Smith, an instructor in the 2nd Range Operations Squadron, runs countdown operations during a simulated launch March 10. Lieutenant Smith is the range control officer for the 30th Operations Group Guardian Challenge team. The team will compete in Guardian Challenge on March 24-26. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christian Thomas)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- 1st Lt. Erin Smith, an instructor in the 2nd Range Operations Squadron, runs countdown operations during a simulated launch March 10. Lieutenant Smith is the range control officer for the 30th Operations Group Guardian Challenge team. The team will compete in Guardian Challenge on March 24-26. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christian Thomas)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --  1st Lt. Ryan Thomas, the chief of current operations for the 30th Operations Group here, monitors the actions of 1st Lt. Lauren Neely (background) during a simluated launch March 10. Lieutenant Thomas is the primary range operations officer for the 30th Operations Group Guardian Challenge team, while Lieutenant Neely is the alternate. The team will compete in Guardian Challenge on March 24-26. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christian Thomas)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- 1st Lt. Ryan Thomas, the chief of current operations for the 30th Operations Group here, monitors the actions of 1st Lt. Lauren Neely (background) during a simluated launch March 10. Lieutenant Thomas is the primary range operations officer for the 30th Operations Group Guardian Challenge team, while Lieutenant Neely is the alternate. The team will compete in Guardian Challenge on March 24-26. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christian Thomas)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --  Capt. Mike Campbell, the assistant operations flight commander with the 2nd Range Operations Squadron here, runs the range operations commander simulation switch during a simulated launch March 10. Captain Campbell is an instructor for the 30th Operations Group Guardian Challenge team. The team will compete in Guardian Challenge on March 24-26. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christian Thomas)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Capt. Mike Campbell, the assistant operations flight commander with the 2nd Range Operations Squadron here, runs the range operations commander simulation switch during a simulated launch March 10. Captain Campbell is an instructor for the 30th Operations Group Guardian Challenge team. The team will compete in Guardian Challenge on March 24-26. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christian Thomas)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --  1st Lt. Brian Shimek and 2nd Lt. Sarah Goyen, instructors in the 2nd Range Operations Squadron here, work on instrumentation issue during a simulated launch March 10. Lieutenants Shimek and Goyen are part of the 30th Operations Group Guardian Challenge team. The team will compete in Guardian Challenge on March 24-26. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christian Thomas)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- 1st Lt. Brian Shimek and 2nd Lt. Sarah Goyen, instructors in the 2nd Range Operations Squadron here, work on instrumentation issue during a simulated launch March 10. Lieutenants Shimek and Goyen are part of the 30th Operations Group Guardian Challenge team. The team will compete in Guardian Challenge on March 24-26. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christian Thomas)

Guardian Challenge 2008

Guardian Challenge 2008

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- (Editor's note: This is the second of a four-part series on Guardian Challenge.) 

As Guardian Challenge prepares for lift-off, the 30th Operations Group here has already launched its intensive training regimen.

Sitting through classroom instruction, poring over regulations, running through hour-long proficiency trainer sessions - the five-person Guardian Challenge team trains daily to show the Hawks are the best in space lift.

"We have an extremely talented team of very dedicated and sharp, sharp people," said 1st Lt. Ryan Thomas, range operations commander for GC team. "Their knowledge of the range is just above and beyond most people."

Besides Lieutenant Thomas, the team members include range control officer 1st Lt. Erin Smith, senior mission flight control officer 2nd Lt. Sarah Goyen, mission flight control officer 1st Lt. Brian Shimek and area control officer Senior Airman Jillian Voyles. While each member was selected for their excellence, the rigors of Guardian Challenge require them to think outside the box ... without thinking.

"They just have to have a gut response - it has to be completely instinctive," said Maj. Vivian Degenhardt, commander of the operations group training flight in the 30th Operations Support Squadron. "The events are much more time intensive (than normal training) in the sense that they don't have as much time to respond to these inputs or to really think about how they're going to respond."

To get the team to that level, they conduct mock launches almost daily. During these launches, instructors will throw "what if" scenarios at them, ranging from a bomb threat to a ship in the water exclusion area. Team members might see a new scenario thrown at them every couple of minutes during the hour-long training session.

All of this training is tough for the team members, but it keeps the trainers on their toes as well. Not only are they preparing scenarios for the training sessions, but they have to be ready to respond on the fly to an unexpected response from a team member.

"The instructors have to think ahead and say, 'How are we going to war-game it if they go down a different path than what we expected?'" said Major Degenhardt. "They've put a lot of time and effort into preparing this team."

As if all this weren't challenging enough, both team members and instructors have to deal with real-world commitments as well.

"Sometimes it's tough balancing our operational commitments day to day with the training for Guardian Challenge," said Lieutenant Thomas. "For instance, we have the Atlas V launch coming up, which is a very big deal, and it's taking a lot of time and a lot of people to make that happen."

Even with all of these trials, or maybe because of them, it seems that the team just keeps getting better.

"Since we've selected the best operators that we have here on the range right now, we already know that we've got the sharpest crew preparing for this," Major Degenhardt said. "They wouldn't have made it through the selection process if they weren't the best of what we have to offer right now."

They're the best at Vandenberg, but will they be the best in Air Force Space Command?

"I don't think anyone is going to beat us," Lieutenant Thomas said. "It's kind of like paper beating rock; I think the Hawks always beat the Sharks. It's science ... you can't deny it."