A TIMELESS TASK

Senior Airman Dana Cable and Senior Airman Shana Wojcik, 9IS quality assurance specialists, analyze and record film density tests Sept. 14, 2016,  at Beale Air Force Base, California. QA manages all Optical Bar Camera film products by ensuring machines are functioning without error and the chemistry is developing the film properly. (Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Taylor A. Workman)

Senior Airman Dana Cable and Senior Airman Shana Wojcik, 9IS quality assurance specialists, analyze and record film density tests Sept. 14, 2016, at Beale Air Force Base, California. QA manages all Optical Bar Camera film products by ensuring machines are functioning without error and the chemistry is developing the film properly. (Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Taylor A. Workman)

Senior Airman Shana Wojcik, 9IS quality assurance section lead, mixes a solution that aids in chemical testing Sept. 14, 2016, at Beale Air Force Base, California. The QA section is responsible for ensuring the film is developed properly by the chemicals within the Versamat 1140 film processor. (Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Taylor A. Workman)

Senior Airman Shana Wojcik, 9IS quality assurance section lead, mixes a solution that aids in chemical testing Sept. 14, 2016, at Beale Air Force Base, California. The QA section is responsible for ensuring the film is developed properly by the chemicals within the Versamat 1140 film processor. (Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Taylor A. Workman)

Staff Sgt. Christopher Hatch, 9IS aerial film processing section lead, pours fixer solution into a mixer Sept. 14, 2016, at Beale Air Force Base, California. Using the fixer and various other chemicals, film processors develop the wet-film imagery captured by the Optical Bar Camera. (Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Taylor A. Workman)

Staff Sgt. Christopher Hatch, 9IS aerial film processing section lead, pours fixer solution into a mixer Sept. 14, 2016, at Beale Air Force Base, California. Using the fixer and various other chemicals, film processors develop the wet-film imagery captured by the Optical Bar Camera. (Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Taylor A. Workman)

A section of Optical Bar Camera duplicate film is magnified using a loupe, showing two U-2 Dragon Lady aircraft on the Beale Air Force Base flightline. The OBC is carried by the U-2, which routinely flies at an altitude of more than 70,000 feet. (Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Taylor A. Workman)

A section of Optical Bar Camera duplicate film is magnified using a loupe, showing two U-2 Dragon Lady aircraft on the Beale Air Force Base flightline. The OBC is carried by the U-2, which routinely flies at an altitude of more than 70,000 feet. (Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Taylor A. Workman)

Senior Airman Shana Wojcik, 9IS quality assurance section lead, threads the original negative film through a Niagara printer in preparation for creating a duplicate positive copy Sept. 9, 2016, at Beale Air Force Base, California. The printing process is essential to the Optical Bar Camera mission because it is the only version of the film that geospatial analysts can exploit. In this section, it is safe to work under red or yellow light to prevent light damage to the duplicate film. (Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Taylor A. Workman)

Senior Airman Shana Wojcik, 9IS quality assurance section lead, threads the original negative film through a Niagara printer in preparation for creating a duplicate positive copy Sept. 9, 2016, at Beale Air Force Base, California. The printing process is essential to the Optical Bar Camera mission because it is the only version of the film that geospatial analysts can exploit. In this section, it is safe to work under red or yellow light to prevent light damage to the duplicate film. (Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Taylor A. Workman)

Senior Airman Heather Hayward, 9IS aerial film production specialist, cuts processed film during an Optical Bar Camera mission Feb. 17, 2015, at Beale Air Force Base, California. OBC Airmen work in a debris-free environment to develop 10,500 feet of film per mission, in either faint green light or complete darkness, using a Versamat 1140 film processor. From start to finish, it takes about nine hours to develop the entire film roll. (Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Taylor A. Workman)

Senior Airman Heather Hayward, 9IS aerial film production specialist, cuts processed film during an Optical Bar Camera mission Feb. 17, 2015, at Beale Air Force Base, California. OBC Airmen work in a debris-free environment to develop 10,500 feet of film per mission, in either faint green light or complete darkness, using a Versamat 1140 film processor. From start to finish, it takes about nine hours to develop the entire film roll. (Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Taylor A. Workman)

Staff Sgt. Renee, 9IS geospatial analyst, reviews duplicate film June 15, 2016, at Beale Air Force Base, California. Once developed, Optical Bar Camera film is given to geospatial analysts for evaluation. The GA section is responsible for creating cohesive imagery products for combatant commanders. (Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Taylor A. Workman)

Staff Sgt. Renee, 9IS geospatial analyst, reviews duplicate film June 15, 2016, at Beale Air Force Base, California. Once developed, Optical Bar Camera film is given to geospatial analysts for evaluation. The GA section is responsible for creating cohesive imagery products for combatant commanders. (Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Taylor A. Workman)

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.”