KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
Imagine a nearly pitch black space.
The hand you can only faintly see in front of you rises to flip a battery pack towards your forehead and a faint hum of power buzzes incessantly like a mosquito in the summertime.
White light emits from two electronically connected monocular devices.
You thumb and index the objective lens piece followed by the eye piece diopter and now you’ve got your focus honed in on your fellow Airman standing across from you on the C-130J aircraft you’re about to open up for a nighttime airdrop.
Whether it is for threat evasion in the air or covert operations on the ground, Reserve Citizen Airmen of the 815th Airlift Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., as well as service members across all branches rely on night vision technology to enable mission safety and success.
The current night-vision devices the Department of Defense uses are marvels compared to the first iterations of NVDs that came about during the Vietnam War, and with recent developments, they’re improving.
Tech. Sgt. Ronald Patton, aircrew flight equipment technician for the 403rd Operations Support Squadron is one of the Reserve Citizen Airmen charged with maintaining and upgrading all manner of life-saving and operations-enabling equipment for aircrew members of the 815th including the four dozen pairs of Gen III AN/AVS-9 night vision goggles.
“The purpose of NVGs as we use them is to manage in-flight responsibilities in the dark just as a crew would in the daytime,” said Patton.
How the devices help accomplish that capability sounds like something out of a science textbook.
“NVGs gather ambient light, or photons, into what is called an objective lens,” explained Patton. “That light is projected onto the front of an intensifier tube where the photocathode plate converts those photons into electrons.”
Though looking through one of the devices seems like one is looking through a regular scope or lens, Patton said that what a person is actually viewing when using an NVG, is a digitized image.
“The electrons pass through a photo multiplier and a phosphor screen, resulting in a digital, visible image,” he said.
The key component for this transferal of light and the space it occupies to a digital rendering of the scene a viewer can make out is phosphor, which, when reacting with electrons, amplifies the light.
Since the first generation of NVGs in the late 1960s, manufacturers have been using green phosphor, hence the green hue that has come to be widely recognized as night vision imagery in movies, video games, military visual information and other facets of media and pop culture.
“The green phosphor allows good visual acuity,” said Patton. “But now manufacturers have figured out that white phosphor allows for great visual acuity.”
In addition to helmet building, oxygen mask maintenance, parachute inspections, routine flotation device inflation and deflation, and more, Patton and his AFE wingmen have been working on the transition of the squadron’s NVGs from green to white phosphor.
“The only thing we’re doing is replacing the tubes the phosphor screens come in, but when you dismantle an NVG and put it back together, it has to go through a series of tests to make sure it’s ready for operational use,” said Patton. “The tests, if everything is running perfect, takes about an hour-and-a-half.”
The transition process will take time, as it intertwines with routine maintenance and repairs of not only the NVGs, but all the rest of the equipment the AFE shop is responsible for.
As for the operational use side of the new NVG developments, Maj. Scott Schavrien, 815th AS director of operations and C-130J pilot, said the white phosphor upgrades are a welcome improvement on the flight deck.
“The white phosphor is great for visual acuity but it also reduces headaches caused by eye strain,” said Schavrien. “Because white is a makeup of every color, your eyes naturally utilize all of its internal receptors on the white phosphor, versus just using one with the green phosphor. Using more receptors results in less eye strain. A lot of times people would complain of headaches after using the green for a prolonged period of time and it’s mainly because your eye is straining to see that single color when it’s used to seeing a plethora of colors.”
The 815th, a tactical airlift squadron capable of providing a variety of air support functions in a deployed environment, conducts routine nighttime training, said Schavrien.
“If we’re deployed and flying in a hostile environment at night, we generally fly at lower altitudes, so NVGs are important in order to see surrounding terrain and landmarks as well as other aircraft if we’re flying in a formation, so that’s what we’re training for during these night missions,” he said. “We’re also conducting nighttime air drops, so loadmasters are using them in the back of the aircraft for the airdrop as well as on the ground to do combat onload and offload training.”