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Team V's MFCOs know how to "Track 'Em or Crack 'Em!"

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Capt. Paul Weistroffer is one of Vandenberg’s Mission Flight Control Officers assigned to the 2nd Range Operations Squadron here. Captain Weistroffer’s role as an MFCO contributed to the success of the recent Atlas V launch here on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009. (U.S. Air Force illustration/Airman 1st Class Andrew Lee)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Capt. Paul Weistroffer is one of Vandenberg’s Mission Flight Control Officers assigned to the 2nd Range Operations Squadron here. Captain Weistroffer’s role as an MFCO contributed to the success of the recent Atlas V launch here on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009. (U.S. Air Force illustration/Airman 1st Class Andrew Lee)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- On any given day of a launch at Vandenberg, a group of operators in the Mission Flight Control Center here begin to feel the full effects of both excitement and stress as the countdown to launch nears.

While spectators come from all around to witness the spectacle of a launch at Vandenberg, an elite group of operators use numerous displays and the Mission Flight Control Team personnel to closely monitor launch vehicle flight performance and its ability to execute flight termination commands, should they become necessary, with one important objective in mind - public safety.

This select group, whose motto is "Track 'Em or Crack 'Em!" is Vandenberg's Mission Flight Control Officers, also known as MFCOs.

The MFCOs possess a great responsibility. Like their motto states, they are responsible for tracking launch vehicles in flight. If a vehicle's flight veers from its normal course and violates predetermined safety parameters, the MFCOs terminate flight by transmitting commands to the vehicle. These commands detonate strategically placed ordnance designed to stop powered flight and consume unspent fuel.

"My mission is to ensure public safety, even though in some cases it might be contradictory to the mission of the launch," said Capt. Paul Weistroffer, a 2nd Range Operations Squadron MFCO. "In this country, we value peoples' lives over monetary things such as rockets and satellites; even if that means terminating a mission worth half a billion dollars, in some cases. We are kind of like the guardians of the flight, but we will only get involved when we have too."

Taking a proactive approach, Vandenberg's MFCOs train vigorously by participating in monthly classroom training, on-console proficiency training, and launch specific crew training, to prepare for upcoming launches.

"We train hard, practice and prepare just as we want to perform on the day of a launch," Captain Weistroffer said. "Our job is to know how our range works and to be able to handle all possible scenarios, so we train accordingly."

Although training is vitally important, the role of the MFCO would not be possible without teamwork.

"Training is a big part, but it is the teamwork of all involved, both military and civilian, that gets the job done," Capt. Weistroffer said. "Since we work so well as a team, if any challenges should arise, I am confident we will be able to handle any problems quickly and correctly."

The position of the MFCO is rare, and there are only about 18 MFCOs in Air Force Space Command, eight of which are at Vandenberg. Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral, Fla., are the only two military launch stations in the United States that launch payloads into orbit.

MFCOs have a proud heritage on Vandenberg's Western Range. They have been ensuring the safety of the general public since 1958, culminating in over 1,900 launches with zero fatalities.

"I am extremely proud to be a MFCO," Captain Weistroffer said. "It is the best job I have had in my 20 years in the Air Force, not just because of the immense responsibilities I'm entrusted with and our rich heritage, but because I get to see the fruits of my labor during every launch. Some people never get that opportunity in their careers. It's exciting to be a part of history in the making."