“I really like my job when things go wrong or, better still, when I can prevent things from going wrong in the first place,” said Ballard, 26, of Granby, Conn. She is a battle captain in the Tactical Operations Center of the 2nd Battalion, 104th Aviation Regiment.
“My job is all about contingencies and troubleshooting,” said Ballard. “When things go well, I am just waiting.”
Ballard may say she is just waiting, but the staff of the TOC is busy around the clock tracking every flight in the battalion, monitoring weather, monitoring security, updating higher headquarters and ensuring every mile of every flight is tracked and recorded from pre-flight to after-operations debriefings.
The tracking methods vary from the sophisticated Blue Force Tracker system, to sending updates to every other TOC in theater online through Microsoft Internet Relay Chat, or MIRC, to a large white board on the wall with the status of every mission updated constantly in dry-erase marker.
MIRC is a large chat room that allows TOCs throughout Iraq to keep each other informed of aircraft status and position. This is especially useful for MEDEVAC operations to track lifesaving mission progress which sometimes require transfer from one helicopter to another on a long journey from the point of injury to the best possible care.
The TOC itself is an open room with a row of large, flat-screen monitors on the wall. These monitors allow operations personnel to see weather across the region and the BFT position of active flights. One of the big screens can be tuned to Armed Forces Network TV to get current events.
On the other side of the room are a raised platform and a long desk with several computers, phones and monitors. The operations crew sits at this table facing the row of monitors and at two lower desks in front of the raised platform. The battle captain sits at the long desk near the status white board. Directly in front of the Soldiers are one to three monitors and laptop screens for various computer systems.
Looking from the service counter, the row of video monitors with their colorful displays and the operators at the phones and monitors, make the room look like a plywood, low-ceiling version of a NASA control room. At any hour of the day, the room can range from eerily quiet to buzzing with activity.
Late in October, there was an evening when the buzz of activity hit maximum. That particular evening three mission sets—each one consisting of two CH-47 Chinook helicopters—took off in the dark as usual and started to spread across Iraq with their cargo of troops and supplies. Within 15 minutes two of the flights were returning to COB Adder for maintenance issues.
What began as a routine evening became a full-on maintenance emergency with three pairs of helicopters returning from three directions.
“One of the first pair of Chinooks could not be fixed,” she said. “The crew had to take their weapons and equipment to a spare bird while ground teams moved the cargo.”
The second pair of aircraft came back for a non-emergency repair, but one that would have grounded the mission. The answer to the problem was to switch one of the helicopters from the third mission set with one from the second. Again this meant two five-member crews moving guns, ammo and flight gear while ground crews moved passengers and cargo.
“I was on the phones and the radio non-stop for 90 minutes,” Ballard said.
Within an hour and a half, all three mission sets were back in the air and on their way to their destinations. It would be a longer night than everyone anticipated, but all the missions that night were completed.
“We didn’t get dinner for quite a while that night,” she said. “We were starving.” Like all the battle captains in the TOC, Ballard is a pilot. She flies CH-47 Chinooks as does her husband Seth who serves as a maintenance test pilot and maintenance officer in the battalion. The Ballards met at flight school and have been together ever since.
In addition to Ballard, the other 2nd Bn., 104th AR battle captains are Capt. James Cragg, Capt. John Hoffman and Capt. Paul Ward, UH-60 Blackhawk pilots; Capt. Nathan Smith, CH-47 Chinook pilot, and 1st Lt. Jason Collier, AH-64D Apache Longbow pilot.