Airmen, volunteers of AAFB unite to create masks to fight COVID-19

Members of the 97th Operations Support Squadron’s Aircrew Flight Equipment (AFE) flight assemble facemasks for base members, April 6, 2020 at Altus Air Force Base Oklahoma. AFE and other base volunteers worked to assemble face masks for individuals who work in areas that make it difficult to practice proper social distancing in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Kenneth W. Norman)

After Secretary of Defense Mark Esper released new guidance on the use of cloth face coverings on April 5, 2020, more than 45 Airmen and dependents from the Mighty 97th volunteered to quickly create and distribute face masks throughout the wing, April 6, 2020, at Altus Air Force Base.

Because some Airmen work in areas that make it difficult to practice social distancing, Col. Matthew Leard, 97th Air Mobility Wing commander, enacted a 48 hour pause to find ways to obtain and distribute masks to Airmen. The volunteers are now working to sew face masks for Airmen to wear in these situations.

“I came up with the idea of making our own masks on Friday, and by Saturday we started experimenting on which version of the masks would be the most effective,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Robert Whisenhunt, the Aircrew Flight Equipment flight chief assigned to the 97th Operation Support Squadron. “On Sunday, my volunteer team and I came in from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. and produced [more than] 50 masks for the Airmen working at the dining facility.”

Whisenhunt explained before 2006, sewing was one of the primary duties of AFE. Once the squadron recognized the need for face masks, more than 10 Airmen immediately volunteered to sew masks. Along with AFE Airmen, others from the 97th Medical Group, 97th Wing Staff Agency, 54th Air Refueling Squadron, 97th OSS and more than 20 spouses teamed up within their squadrons to rotate shifts or individually craft over 3,000 masks for Airmen across the base.

“Sewing is really found in the bread and butter of AFE, and these types of projects cover things of that nature,” he said. “As soon as it became apparent that masks would soon be needed across base, it was almost like an automatic reaction to volunteer our skill set for this job.”

The masks were made out of donated fabrics, which included materials like cotton, common sewing cloth and old uniforms. Within the span of three days, the volunteer teams measured, cut, and sewed masks that will be dispersed throughout the 97th AMW.

“During this time, every one of us has a different job that will help the bigger picture,” said Maj. DeAndra Price-Newby, the 97th MDG Dental flight commander. “I spent my time today helping measure and cut the fabric while helping coordinate the efforts that the Airmen and families of the medical group are putting into this project.”

Although handmade, these masks are designed in alignment with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to fit most faces and prevent the spread of germs, thus helping keep Airmen healthy and mission ready.

“This is a time when we really need to come together and help our wingmen,” said Price-Newby. “Making these masks is a concerted effort across squadrons to make sure all of our Airmen have the appropriate personal protective equipment to keep themselves and others healthy.”

Mighty 97th leaders will continue to implement measures to mitigate the risk and spread of COVID-19 to ensure the base’s mission of training exceptional mobility Airmen continues on safely. Moving forward, individuals on DoD installations will wear cloth face coverings that are conservative in nature when they cannot maintain proper social distancing in public areas or work centers. For further guidance, read the latest guidance on face coverings here.