Deployed Airmen fuel combat outpost security

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Michael Voss
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Airmen from the 455th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron Fuels Management Flight are assisting in the safety and security of thousands of U.S., Afghan and coalition troops at various forward operating bases and combat outpost throughout Afghanistan.

Above these remote locations, aerostats (small blimps) float tethered by a cable to provide power and communications to the day and night cameras, which are monitored in the bases' command center.

The Persistent Threat Detection System and Persistent Ground Surveillance System may not be known to the American public, but service members serving in some the most remote locations in the country know these systems as lifelines to their safety and security.

These surveillance balloons use helium to stay afloat, and providing gas to these outposts requires cooperation of both Airmen and contractors. Air Force fuels specialists work with contractors from a Dubai based company to ensure the helium is stored and transported in liquid form to the requester.

At Bagram Airfield, there are two specially qualified Air Force fuels specialists who enable the process, which makes them somewhat of an oddity.

"We are something of a dying breed," said Staff Sgt. Shawn Sumpter, a 455th ELRS Fuels Management Flight cryogenics specialist. "Most cryogenics is being taken over by contractors."

Cryogenics is a branch of physics that deals with the production and effects of very low temperatures. With fuels, this means using cryogenic fuel like liquid hydrogen or nitrogen to keep the other liquid such as helium cool.

Here military fuel specialists like Staff Sgt. William Veal, use nitrogen to keep the helium used to lift the PTDS balloons.

Due to logistical difficulties in moving a large bulk shipment of nitrogen, Defense Logistics Agency officials turned to the Air Force for assistance. In order to preserve the helium, liquid nitrogen must be used to keep the helium from boiling off and keep it cooled.

"Before January DLA would have tanks shipped from Dubai, but it was depleted by the time it got here making it less effective in the balloons," Sergeant Veal said.

Using a TMU-24, skid mounted, 400-gallon cryogenic tank, the fuels management flight provides the liquid nitrogen. Inside the TMU-24 the nitrogen is maintained at -321 degrees.

Once a FOB notices one of the small blimps floating lower than needed, they call in requests for additional-helium and workers from the Dubai based company to bring giant trucks with 40-foot liquid helium containers to the fuels flight here. Taking nearly 12,000 gallons a month, trucks loaded with the helium surrounded by containers filled with the liquid nitrogen then begin to make their way to the ground troops.

"Together the 455th ELRS Fuels Management and the aerostat mission are part of the ongoing mission to fight terrorism here at the Bagram Airfield," said Senior Master Sgt. Brian Robitaille, 455th ELRS, Fuels Management Flight superintendent.

Although the duties of cryogenic specialist like Sergeant Sumpter keep him busy here on Bagram Airfield, miles away from where the PTDS balloons are put to use, he takes a certain amount of pride in knowing his skills are protecting the lives of hundreds of ground troops in more remote places of Afghanistan.

"I have never even seen the balloons," Sergeant Sumpter said. "But, I have heard they have made a big difference at the locations that used to be attacked regularly and that's enough for me."