And when they fly, they hide in plain sight; no air traffic controllers know what they carry.
Along with its regular air transport duties, the PNAF squadron is the only one in the Air Force that flies nuclear weapons and their components among bases around the globe. Officially it is known as the nation's "Prime Nuclear Airlift Force", or PNAF for short.
"The 62nd Airlift Wing calls us its only 'no fail' mission," said Maj. Brian Lewis, 36, one of the unit's pilots and commanders.
Knowing what is being airlifted in the cargo hold "is in the forefront of your mind," he said. "It's not an ego thing; it's a responsibility."
The squadron trains so that nothing it does can be blamed for canceling a mission. It is also a reminder that though the Cold War went away, nuclear weapons remain a real part of war arsenals around the world.
With its mission in mind, the squadron recently aced a grueling five-day "nuclear surety" inspection it must undergo every 18 months.
A team of 25 inspectors last month descended to test, among other things, the oversight of the squadron's wing leadership, the Airlift Squadron crews' physical and psychological health and the planes they use and procedures they follow.
"We had 28 people tested. Of those 28, each scored 100 percent" in five major grading areas, said Maj. Rob Campbell, 32, an Airlift Squadron pilot and commander.
The job of transporting nuclear weapons is so sensitive that something as simple as a traffic ticket or as traumatic as a death in the family must be reported immediately to the squadron commander. After such a report, the crew member often is pulled temporarily from flights, said Tom Thompson, nuclear surety manager for 62nd Aircraft Wing Safety.
"If you are worried about anything other than dealing with these items (nuclear weapons), you should not be on a mission. We want to make sure you are up to the challenge, that your head is in the mission," said Capt. Nathan Higgins, 29, another of the squadron's aircraft commanders.
Federal laws prevent military officials from confirming or denying the presence of nuclear weapons at a base, but defense observers don't think the weapons are stockpiled at McChord AFB, WA. The Airlift Squadron transports the weapons and components needing replacement among other bases in the U.S. and around the world where Air Force nuclear warheads are stored. But those components come from various and often classified locations.
The Navy's Trident ballistic submarine base at Bangor, on Hood Canal 10 miles west of Seattle, is considered one of the nation's largest stockpiles of nuclear warheads, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Resources Defense Council.
Most often, the McChord squadron carries components of nuclear weapons -- such as parachutes -- that need to be changed in the normal cycle of machinery, Thompson said.
On the McChord flight line recently, Campbell, of Herndon, Va., admiringly checked over one of the C-17 airlifters. Barely nine years old, the Boeing/McDonnell-built planes are among the newest military assets.
"The C-130 is a Ford Explorer, a C-5 a Chevy Suburban," Campbell said only half jokingly about the earlier versions of cargo planes. "A C-17 is like a Porsche Cayenne."
The planes are equipped with laser-guided countermeasures to foil enemy attack. The cockpit, a ladder climb above the cargo area, resembles that of a DC-10 but with a fighter stick type of electronic flight controls and head-up displays similar to a fighter jet's.
When it is not called upon for a nuclear airlift, the 4th Airlift Squadron, like others in McChord's 62nd Airlift Wing and the base's reserve component, the 446th, handles multiple responsibilities.
They include flying troops and equipment to war zones, taking scientists and equipment to Antarctica's runways coated with a 50-inch layer of ice, evacuating wounded troops and squiring VIPs and even the armored and specially built, heavy presidential limousines.
When a nuclear mission comes up, Thompson, who formerly commanded nuclear airlift missions, said the best plane ready on the flight line is hand-picked for the job. The 4th Airlift Squadron's missions are published internally and crews scheduled two to three days in advance. The crews are screened and selected for the squadron -- which has 150 to 200 members -- after showing a desire to serve its prime mission.
New crew members must master different jobs during a 13-month period that takes them from beginner to "PNAF," a qualified member of the Prime Nuclear Airlift Force.
The longest billet pilots serve is "courier." The courier signs for the nuclear weapon at the base it is coming from and signs it over to the base it is going to, assuming responsibility during the flight. The courier also is responsible for security around the plane during loading.
Belonging to the nation's Prime Nuclear Airlift Force "readjusts your perceptions," said Campbell, one of the more veteran fliers.
"Before I became a part of it, my wife wouldn't trust me to take the trash out on Tuesday; now the Air Force trusts me to take missions like these."
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