Reflecting on the Open Skies mission

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Chris Reteneller, 45th Reconnaissance Squadron (currently deployed)

With the sunset of the OC-135, I thought it was time to reflect on a great program. 

First, an introduction. I have flown these aircraft since 2005 and have had the privilege of accomplishing between 2000-3000 hours over all the different types of missions on the OC-135: active observation to humanitarian to training to extraordinaries. Many knew of our missions overflying Russia, but we have also supported disaster recovery such as during Hurricane Rita/Katrina in New Orleans and the 2010 Haitian earthquake. The men and women who flew and supported this aircraft were always prepared.

We used Vietnam-era, wet film cameras for the flights and were in the process of upgrading to digital cameras that would have greatly increased our capabilities while remaining within treaty limitations. Furthermore, the community worked diligently and were weeks away from going to bid on a new aircraft. There were countless hurdles and difficulties but the Open Skies experts worked tirelessly to overcome them. We nearly succeeded but it wasn’t to happen. So rather than welcoming the needed upgrades, we bid farewell to an aircraft and program we loved.

The Treaty on Open Skies was first enacted to enhance mutual understanding and confidence between all 34 signatories, primarily between US & Allies and Russia. Each country was able to take aerial images of the observed party with nearly unfettered access. Those fortunate enough to participate in the treaty would likely agree that there was more to these missions than just the images. We brought our aircraft around the world with only those on board (often times including ally representatives) and the aircraft parts we could carry to ensure success. We waived the American Flag places that often knew nothing of America except that portrayed on state television and movies. 

Each mission permitted Russian citizens a glimpse of Americans, often times the only one they will ever have. We were as likely to meet a conscript as a diplomat, visit a somber war memorial as a wedding party, or see a military exercise or children playing with ice sculptures. These missions provided an opportunity to interact with our Russian counterparts and to build a common understanding. The Open Skies family celebrated promotions, birthdays, successes, failures, and mourned losses together. These experiences cannot be overlooked when considering the success of the missions over these years. 

Legacy. The legacy of our treaty lays in those experiences and relationships. The operators, maintainers, aircrew and support personnel. The families who persevered at home while we toiled away abroad. Yes, we had fun times on the road (such as our visits to the tank museum, the battlefields, the natural history museum, and maybe a bar or restaurant) but we also worked extremely hard. A typical trip being 40 hours over 10 flights in a 12-day window often into austere fields with no additional support. We rarely hard broke because our maintainers fixed our aircraft with bonding wire, speed tape, or rigged a way to make it happen. We were always safe and almost always found a way to complete the mission and get home; even if it was a few days later than planned.  

The world we live in is very different than when President Eisenhower proposed this treaty or when President HW Bush signed it into effect, but what our mission stood for is more important than ever. Uncertainty and mistrust are greater than ever today, and relationships and mutual trust built with our allies is vital to the security and safety of our great nation. If ever our government decides on a similar mission, the 55 Wing and our OC family stand ready to answer the call in ensuring a bright future. Until that time, we will all go forth and wear the uniform proudly.