WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio --
At the 28th Intelligence Squadron, there’s a career field that has been making strides as the squadron continues to grow. That career field is Tactical Systems Operator (TSO) specialty of the 1A8X2 – Airborne ISR Operator Air Force Specialty Code.
The 28th IS is an intelligence unit located at Hurlburt Field, Florida. It is a classic reserve associate unit supporting the 25th Intelligence Squadron in conducting airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to provide precision geolocation, real-time battlefield awareness updates, direct threat warning, and C2 relay capabilities to Air Force Special Operations Command. The squadron is the first and only Reserve squadron with tactical systems operators. Its mission is to organize and train total force integrated personnel to deliver specialized intelligence directly to United States Special Operations Forces through providing equipment maintenance and configuration, analysis and dissemination, airborne ISR, and operational support.
TSOs are airborne intelligence operators who are qualified to fly on all light fixed wing aircraft within the AFSOC inventory, and are also able to quickly plug and play on emerging tactical assets through quick field installations of a variety of carry-on systems. These members are routinely deployed and are embedded with special operations units around the globe. Currently, the 28 IS makes up 10 percent of all qualified TSO billets in the Air Force.
This small body of TSO Airmen have dedicated themselves to supporting two continuous deployment lines in austere bases within combat locations in three major AORs. The majority of the 28th's TSOs have at least three combat deployments behind them, some even have up to ten, and they easily accumulate more combat flight hours than most fighter pilots.
TSO Airmen assigned to the 28th IS are incredibly proud to serve in their career field. Senior Master Sgt. Patience Spence, flight chief for the 28th’s TSOs, has said that doing this job is the only thing that brought her back into the Air Force after completing her six Active Duty years as a 1A8X1 with the 97th Intelligence Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.
Spence was one of the X1s selected to do the SOF side of the job during the standup of the X2 career field and after completing four TSO deployments totaling 21 months in country over a three year period, there was no going back to the Rivet Joint life. Since coming into the 28th in May 2014, Spence has become an instructor and evaluator supporting the 25 IS and has deployed three times for the 25th as a special intelligence (SI) detachment training lead, MC-12W TSO lead, and was the first reservist to serve as an SI detachment senior enlisted advisor.
Another former Regular Air Force TSO, Tech. Sgt. Lori Carlin, came to the 28th from Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, two years ago to continue her service as an X2 and has quickly proved herself to her 25th counterparts. She completed instructor qualification training and just recently was selected for evaluator upgrade.
“Before becoming a TSO, I often asked myself, ‘Am I doing anything that’s making a difference?’ Now there's no question. I have been an integral part in countless SOF missions and have undoubtedly played a key part in ensuring the safety and success of our joint and coalition partners on the battlefield,” said Carlin.
“My eagerness to take the fight to the enemy,” is what Master Sgt. Combs, former crew chief, said lead him to re-train to become a TSO. “I didn’t mind fixing aircraft and often thought I’d be doing that for 20 years, but one day I woke up with the an urge to do more, I wanted to be the ‘tip of the spear’.”
In 2016, Combs made the switch and has since deployed twice as an air NCO-in charge, completed flight instructor upgrade, and dedicated himself to ensure tomorrow’s TSOs are trained to be technically and tactfully proficient.
“Being a TSO has broaden my perspective on not just how major operations work but also why,” said Combs.
Senior Airman Joslyn Williams, one of the squadron’s first non-prior service Airmen, said “It’s always the best feeling in the world when you turn on the news and can say, ‘Hey I was a major part of that operation.”
Williams completed her first deployment in 2019 and gained more than 500 combat hours on that tour. Because of the skills she showed and dedication she had while on deployment, she was recently selected for upgrade to instructor by the Regular Air Force cadre at the 25 IS.
Staff Sgt. Tristan Wentworth, a former member of the 25 IS, said, “Have you ever worked on something and you never knew if it was going to go anywhere? As a TSO, I’ve never worked on anything that didn’t have results.”
Col. Kenneth Alderman, 28 IS commander, spoke highly of the men and women of his unit and all that they do.
“Our maintainers, direct support analysts, TSOs and support elements have a tremendous amount of pride in our partnership with the 25 IS. The Total Force unity of effort in this enterprise is a beautiful thing to be a part of. Barracudas deploy to austere locations as line flyers, program leads in charge of entire teams of Regular Air Force TSOs and joint personnel, and we even had our first detachment senior enlisted advisor in Fiscal year 2019.”
Col. Alderman went on to say, “In garrison, the squadron not only delivers fully qualified ISR aviators to the fight, but the TSOs, ground intelligence analysts, and maintainers support ongoing efforts to stay abreast of changes in strategic competitors and rapidly evolve both technology and training environments.”