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Breaking tradition: airborne sensor operator makes history

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Daniel Propst, assigned to an E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft with 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron (961st AACS), describes his experience being the first enlisted sensor operator in the U.S. Air Force during Cope North 20. Exercise Cope North 20 is an annual U.S. Pacific Air Forces joint and combined, trilateral field training exercise with participants from the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, Japan Air Self-Defense Force, and Royal Australian Air Force conducted primarily at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

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U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Daniel Propst, 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron E-3 Sentry airborne sensor operator, poses for a photo, Feb. 11, 2020, at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The Ponce De Leon, Fla., native is the Air Force’s first E-3 Sentry AWACS enlisted airborne sensor operator and is enhancing the 961st AACS’s capabilities at Cope North 2020, an annual trilateral field exercise conducted in Guam, and around the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), Palau, and Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Greg Nash)

ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam --

Enclosed in a dimly lit aircraft soaring over the Pacific Ocean, a man intensively stares at images of aerial and maritime threats on his console display. While scanning the screen, he simultaneously details the most accurate, real-time picture of the battlespace to mission crew leaders.

Illuminated by the monitor’s glow, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Daniel Propst, 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa Japan, sits and embraces the challenge of being the Air Force’s first E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) airborne sensor operator.

Eight years total in the making, the Ponce de Leon, Fla., native is proud to have fulfilled his dream of continuing his family’s Air Force tradition. Though he’s held many unique jobs in his lifetime, his newest gig is the most rewarding. 

“This accomplishment is a unique feeling,” said Propst. “Since I first saw the airborne mission systems job description prior to joining, I was excited about the mission. Although I have added responsibilities with the new position, the excitement is still there and I’m glad enlisted members have this opportunity to greatly improve the Air Force mission.” 

Due to job demands, officer equivalent airborne sensor operators are more likely to move to a staff duty or ground assignment, which can hinder a member’s airframe readiness and proficiency. In contrast,  enlisted aren’t put into non-flying billets as often.

As the enlisted trailblazer for his aircraft, Propst leads a 4-member surveillance team out of Kadena AB. Now, he’s enhancing his readiness in the Western Pacific at COPE North 2020, an annual trilateral field training exercise at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

With US Forces, Japan Air Self-Defense Force and the Royal Australian Air Force personnel performing one mission as a multinational task force, Propst looks forward to providing blue air control and a single integrated air picture to the blue forces during the 17-day exercise.

“Being able to fly, brief and debrief with the Japanese and Australian forces in a large-scale movement like this is special for me,” Propst added. “This experience can help in my day-to-day job by not only solidifying and refining our own operational procedures but helping develop new ones.  Having the ability to exchange expertise with our partners ensures the safety and security in the theater. The same people we are training with are the people we will depend on in the worst-case scenario.”

For Propst, seeing the hundreds of sorties over the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia take place will stand out, but honing his proficiency and taking them back to home station is the ultimate goal.

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