Moses Lake is a city of roughly 20,000 people, located 200 miles east of Joint Base Lewis McChord. Moses Lake also plays an important role in the flying mission of the 62nd Airlift and 446th Airlift wings for two reasons — Grant County International Airport and “Iron Cross.”
“Iron Cross,” a.k.a. Blaine Barnett, 62nd Operations Support Squadron operations support specialist, works out of the Grant County International Airport, in Moses Lake, and serves as a focal point for C-17 aircrews and the control tower.
He and his team are out on the assault runway at all hours of the night and day — rain, snow or shine, seven days a week — supporting flying operations.
“Our four-person team supports all of the assault zone operations east of the Cascades for the 62 AW and the 446th AW,” he said. “We survey the assault zones and go out and mark them for whatever type of flying operation they are doing. We score assault zone landings as well as talk to the aircraft on the radio to pass (on) current hazards.”
His team consists of Wayne Fuiten, a Vietnam-era Air Force Special Operations weatherman and retired combat controller, Jeff Dicicco, also a retired combat controller, and Will Chiaffino, a former Navy air traffic controller.
The scoring portion of the team’s job occurs on a runway where the aircraft simulates landing in an austere location. Markers on the runway show the pilot where to land.
“For the aircraft sitting as high as they do and going as fast as they do, it’s hard to tell specifically where they touch down,” he said. “So we serve as a visual reference and provide them situational awareness. This in turn gives them a good idea of where they have to aim.”
The assault runway itself is 3,500 feet. long by 90 feet wide. Barnett and his team give each aircraft that lands a score within a 100-foot increment estimate.
“The feedback has been positive,” Barnett said. “All the crews like having someone providing them a more accurate estimate of their touchdown. It keeps people a little more accountable and it also creates competition.”
The Moses Lake team sees and supports more than 20 aircraft per week. Barnett said they serve more than just the McChord C-17s. While the Navy is a frequent user of the assault strip, other Air Force bases with aircrews who use night vision capabilities will also use the assault strip at Moses Lake.
“We support daytime operations by scoring,” Barnett said. “We support night operations with one person scoring and one person acting as the advisory service when the tower closes at 10 p.m. and they also control the lights for the runway depending on where they crew is landing.”
The team stays busy serving as eyes and ears on the ground. They are not only evaluating but they are also observing the conditions for the aircraft to land.
“We are here to ensure the operation goes safely,” he said. “Conditions on the ground are often different than conditions in the air. Winter time weather conditions change rapidly and we can provide (the aircrew) with real-time status of conditions on the landing zone. This is vital.”
The team relays bird advisories daily, an action which serves to ensure safety for the aircraft.
“I remember one day on the drop zone right at dusk, I watched thousands of ducks in small groups fly across the drop zone for 15 minutes,” Barnett said. “We had a formation of aircraft flying to the drop zone. Because I noticed the ducks, I had the aircraft hold to the south of the drop zone until it was safe.
“Bird issues out here are very significant. These crews have a resource (in us) that enables them to keep flying rather than stop training because of birds.”
Barnett’s history with the Air Force and the wing began long before his job at Moses Lake.
He enlisted in Air Force in January 1984 and became a Survival Resistance Evasion and Escape instructor.
“I loved the job but I wanted to do something more combat oriented, so I cross-trained into combat control,” he said. “I did that for nearly 13 years, and then I went back to being a SERE instructor.”
Barnett, who said he loves to work outdoors, said he feels fortunate to be doing what he’s doing now.
“I love supporting the wing and supporting the people,” he said proudly. “I love being able to be a part of things especially working around the aircraft (and crew). They’re the ones going into harm’s way and transporting other people into harm’s way as well. It’s about serving others, not yourself.”
Barnett’s selflessness and dedication to the job come as no surprise to those who know him, including his superiors.
“His efforts have single-handedly propped up McChord’s airdrop program over the last four years,” said Maj. Sean McConville, 62nd OSS C-17A weapons officer. “In 2015, he ran Rainier Drop Zone for 779 airdrops and controlled the assault strip at Moses Lake for 1,285 night vision landings.”