Down the Hatch

  • Published
  • By Airman Magazine Staff
  • Airman Magazine

Nestled among thousands of acres of gently rolling corn and wheat fields lies a seemingly desolate building overwhelmed with oddly shaped antennas, barbed wire fences, and a perimeter defended by half a dozen armed guards. Inside the mysterious outpost is an Airman who spends more than six months of the year living in a 10-by-12-foot room, taking orders given by the 20 or so who stand post inside.

What seems to be the setting of an isolated maximum security prison is actually a “sanctuary” for Airman 1st Class Alexandra Ayub, a missile chef headquartered at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming. The small room is her part-time home, the orders she takes are personal food requests from her fellow Airmen, armed with the nation’s ultimate deterrent, and her “sanctuary” is the kitchen where she feels most creative and productive.

From an outsider’s perspective, there is obviously something important going on in the building. But unbeknownst to most, the heart of the operation is located seven stories down an elevator shaft and behind a 10-ton nuclear blast-proof door. Situated behind the door is a dank and narrow hallway leading to a railroad car-like capsule hosting to two missileers. Those two, who upon orders from the president of the United States, have the critical responsibility of defending the nation and its allies through the use of nuclear weapons.

Though it comes across as science fiction, in reality, this mission has been taking place for more than five decades. In 1963, the Air Force activated its first missile silo and missile alert facility (MAF) at Malmstrom AFB, Montana, which housed America’s first intercontinental nuclear missile base. When former premier of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev threatened with ostentatious displays of military force, President John F. Kennedy counted on his “ace in the hole” as a deterrent to further aggression.

To maintain that deterrence, missile crews must be on duty constantly and able to execute their orders in a moment’s notice. This is why Ayub, and her fellow missile chefs, are so critical to the mission.

Every hour of every day, dozens of capsules nationwide are occupied by a team of two missileers, who upon acceptance of alert, must remain in the capsule until a relief crew arrives. Ensuring the crew and the MAF are safe, secure and fully operational is a dedicated team of security forces Airmen and a facility manager. Together, these modern-day centurions live at the facility for four days at a time and up to 16 days a month.

“Being that we are forward operating up to 190 days a year, it is extremely important that each of the MAF crewmembers have exactly what it is that they need to fulfill their mission,” Ayub said. “It just happens to be that my job as a missile chef is to ensure that they are fueled and kept in high spirits.”

Because the cloistered crews cannot fulfill their mission without food, and the fact that there is no drive-thru or delivery, the devoted missile chefs are a linchpin in the MAF operation and critical to the nuclear strike/deterrence mission, even though they never handle the missile keys. “Unlike military chefs that work in the dining facilities, I have sole responsibility of the kitchen I work in. And, because of that, I order my own food, and make my own menu for crew members,” Ayub said. “The significance of a home cooked meal that is tailored to an individual’s likes, gives them a sense of comfort, and helps relieve the stress from being away from home, away from their friends, and away from their families. This is one of the many reasons why I take so much pride in my job.”

Ayub understands the stress of being away from her family all to well, as she too leaves her home and husband every other week. She, the other missile chefs and all MAF crews are away from their home bases so often and for so long, that they are coded as deployed in place for Operation Global Citadel.

“This line of work can be extremely difficult at times; the isolation gives you a lot of time to think — you must be mentally prepared for the separation. Making sure that you communicate with your family and establish a positive routine is what keeps you levelheaded,” Ayub said. “This is the reason why each time I have to preform my MAF duties, my husband helps ready my bags, iron my uniforms, and takes the time to drop me off.”

After being dropped off at a staging facility, missile chefs load their personal bags and food supplies into a transport truck and make a one to two-hour commute to their assigned MAF. Upon arrival, they are then ushered through multiple layers of security, where credentials are checked, anti-threat protocols are performed, and eventually the “all clear” is given — permitting them access to the alert facility.

Once on site, the chefs make their way to their dormitory-style quarters, unpack their bags, ready their rooms, and prepare for the thrice-daily routine of nourishing the MAF team.

Unique to this mission is the interaction the chefs have with the missile alert crewmembers, who must remain underground in case of real-world notifications. Prior to their descent, the missileers peruse the chef’s menu, pick their favorite dishes, and pencil in their preferences. Then, at predetermined times throughout the day, the chefs prepare the meals, hop in the elevator, and personally deliver the order. More often than not, this is the only face-to-face interaction the crews have with anyone else for the duration of their isolation.

“The chef at a missile alert facility is probably the single most important person when it comes to morale,” said 1st Lt. Brandon Bush, a nuclear launch control officer (missileer). “Being that the MAFs are designed to be a home away from home, having a warm meal brings a lot of pleasure. You can definitely see that there is a special sort of happiness when our chef personalizes a meal just to someone’s liking.”

When not personalizing meals, and whipping up specialty menu items, the chefs find plenty of ways to ease their minds and pass the time. For Ayub, it’s completing her degree, drawing, and running the scenic paths that surround the facility.

Missile chefs, like Ayub, are traditional services specialists, which number at about 3,200 Air Force wide. However, at any given time, less than 185 are missile chefs, or less than 1 percent of every services Airman in her career field. Understanding she is among the few services Airmen getting a chance to be a missile chef, Ayub acknowledges the honor and prestige, and displays the gratitude in her cooking.

“When I’m in the kitchen, I’m in my own world; I instantly lose myself in the creativity of what I do,” said Ayub, who is of Arab and Mexican descent. “I’m overcome with great satisfaction each time I prepare a meal, because I am allowed the luxury to blend my heritage, my culture, and what I learned from nana (grandmother) in Texas, and share it that with others. Being selected as a missile chef was one of the greatest honors in my life — I wouldn’t trade this job for the world.”