A TIMELESS TASK

BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --

In the dark confines of a deployable van, the lingering smell of noxious gases offends the senses and stains ABUs. Those unpleasant odors radiate freedom from their metal confines because they belong to the only deployable Department of Defense unit providing the production, exploitation and dissemination of U-2 Dragon Lady aerial film.

That’s right, the U.S. Air Force still develops film. No need to check your calendar, it’s 2016.

What some consider a relic of the Cold War, the Airmen of the 9th Intelligence Squadron Optical Bar Camera flight consider the heart and soul of the Air Force’s high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission. 

Utilizing the Optical Bar Camera, the U-2 has delivered film with high-quality resolution during peacetime and war operations for more than 60 years. 

“We still process wet film because there is not a digital medium in ISR that can beat it, let alone match it,” said Staff Sgt. Tinese Jackson, 9IS OBC mission manager. “The image quality and the amount of imagery we can capture in one mission cannot be done in a digital format.”

OBC imagery flexes its ISR muscles across more than 30 missions per year, but one in particular has a special place in Jackson’s heart.

In 2014, OBC imagery was specifically requested because it was the only sensor that could capture the entire area of Mount Sinjar, Iraq, in the timeline required. Trapped on the mountain were 50,000 Yazidi refugees who fled their home after the Sinjar massacre, an attack by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant terrorists known as ISIL, that ended in the slaughter of 5,000 villagers.

“Our mission was used to find the refugees and aid in the distribution of food, water and other survival necessities until help could arrive,” said Jackson.

Once the film arrived at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., products were generated and sent to combatant commanders within 12 hours. 

The imagery aided efforts to provide relief to the refugees and was shared with U.S. allies, leading to the liberation of those trapped on the mountain.

Because the film is used in many humanitarian efforts like this one, it is crucial the process is executed flawlessly.

“We inspect every inch of the film and the copies for damage, to include exposure issues, scratches and anything that would degrade the quality of the images,” said Jackson. “Our number one priority is to send a product that has high quality imagery and will stand the test of time.”

When each roll of OBC film is received by 9IS aerial imagery production specialists, it is roughly 10,500 feet long, weighs about 100 pounds, inside of a light-sealed container. Airmen working in a dark, debris-free environment develop the film, or original negative, using a Versamat 1140 film processor. The machine develops the exposed image and removes any pieces left unexposed by the camera.

Once the film is processed, Airmen swiftly cut it into manageable sections and prep it for printing. The printing process is comprised of annotating any imperfections on the film caused by the camera or Versamat, then duplicating the negative to produce a positive image. 

Duplication is vital to the OBC mission because the positive image is the only version of the film intelligence analysts can exploit.

From start to finish, the complete process takes approximately 12 hours before delivery to OBC geospatial analysts for exploitation. 

“We are responsible for creating imagery products for combatant commanders downrange,” said Senior Airman Rodney, 9IS OBC geospatial analyst. “We locate any activity on the imagery and research the target to provide a complete analysis package.”

So, in an age of seemingly unlimited digital platforms, why film?

“OBC film provides unparalleled broad-area mapping at a fraction of the cost and with better resolution,” said Capt. Sean Bruderer, OBC flight commander. “It is invaluable imagery, for mapping and reference, to coalition and national partners worldwide in an ongoing fight against adversaries.”