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Distinguished Visitor

CORAOPOLIS, pa. --

It’s not always a normal day at the 171st Air Refueling Wing, anticipation fills the air as military members, bystanders, federal authorities and media alike wait for the arrival of one of the most recognizable symbols of the United States. However, an event requiring rigorous planning and participation from hundreds of people for days can be over in merely a few hours.

The 171st has capped off another busy year of supporting the presidential aircraft. Many may not know the full extent of logistics and planning needed to seamlessly support the Air Force One mission, so we talked to the office responsible for coordinating it all, the 171st Logistics Readiness Squadron, Plans and Integration Office.

In 2020, the 171st “DV team” supported six visits from Air Force One carrying the President of the United States and Vice President of the United States totalling 12 aircraft. Master Sgt. Heather Helsel, a logistics planner with the 171st LRS, has been involved in supporting the Air Force One mission for the past five years. Helsel recently transitioned as the lead Presidential Support Liaison for the wing and supported the very busy presidential mission.

“It’s indescribable, you put so much work in, it’s just amazing,” Helsel recalled when asked how coordinating a successful mission makes her feel.

The 171st DV team may have as much as a week or as little as a few days’ notice to successfully plan and execute an Air Force One support mission. This is no little task. The DV team has to hit the ground running once notice is received of a visit. The team is virtually on call 24/7 until the visit is completed, including nights, weekends and holidays.

“It (the DV team) almost touches every section in the wing when there’s a visit,” said Helsel.

Planning involves coordination from sections inside the 171st and outside agencies such as the United States Secret Service and the White House. Each party has a slightly different set of priorities and agenda requiring them to work together but also trust each other to accomplish the task properly.

Internally at the 171st, the LRS DV Team coordinates with all major groups on base. They require additional help from specific sections like Security Forces, Petroleum Oil and Lubricant, Aircraft Maintenance, Vehicle Transportation, Air Transportation, Airfield Flight Equipment and Public Affairs. Each section is vital to achieving a successful mission.

“The biggest challenge is getting all the entities with different views and ideas on the same page,” said Helsel.

Although this may be a challenge, relationships and camaraderie are built between agencies that work to meet the synergistic goal of a successful visit.

“The Secret Service and White House team are always professional and personable, they are just wonderful to work with,” said Helsel “Without the cooperation of all the other sections involved, these (visits) would never go off smoothly”.

Helsel recalls one memorable visit on Halloween this year, while families were participating in Halloween traditions, the DV Team oversaw coordination for 24-hours with multiple aircraft. Air Force One arrived with three accompanying V22-Osprey, two VH-60 White Hawks from Marine One and a Gulfstream Aircraft. In addition to the visit taking place on a weekend, this mission happened three days before the presidential election while the entire nation was watching the President’s every move. The demands of the DV team were even more stressful than usual that particular visit.

“Every visit has its own challenges, every visit is different,” said Helsel. “You have to be able to adapt very quickly”.

It’s thanks to the tireless efforts, planning and coordination from guardsmen with the 171st LRS DV team that made all this possible.

“It’s a really great feeling when you see the jet finally take off,” said Helsel. “Everyone kind of high-fives and celebrates”.