Two pilots in a helicopter fly over the city of Las Vegas.

Stellar ascent: NNSS awarded top honors in aviation safety

Two pilots in a helicopter fly over the city of Las Vegas.

The Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Aviation Management recognized the Nevada National Security Sites (NNSS) as winners of five coveted Aviation Safety Awards for the 2023 program year.

NNSS received top honors for the small aviation program (fewer than 20 aircraft) award based on best practices to make its aviation department more efficient and effective during the past year, translating to excellence in carrying out the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) mission. Four individual awards included the Aviation Safety Officer Award to NNSS Aviation Operations Safety Officer Heather Baldwin; Pilot Award to NNSS Pilot Supervisor Alex Brid; Maintenance Award to NNSS Principal Technologist Stephanie Land; and Administration Award to NNSS Administrative Specialist Sandra Hayes.

The Nuclear Emergency Support Team’s (NEST) Aerial Measuring System (AMS) team maintains 24/7 readiness for rapid deployment of its pilots, scientists, and technical personnel and assets out of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. When not activated for emergency response missions, AMS conducts baseline surveys ahead of major national events, environmental surveys, training with other federal and state agencies, and continuous work with evolving radiation-detection technologies. Among the NNSS aviation program’s credentials is a leading safety record, with zero accidents or incidents over the last 25 years.

“Our team has embraced a safety culture that permeates the whole organization,” said Baldwin. “You can see it in the policies, the daily operations, and in the mindset of the entire team. DOE/NNSA has 17 active aviation programs. As far as the awards, it’s an honor and highlights the quality and caliber of the personnel who work here.”

RSL also serves as a premier resource for ally countries to conduct best practice sharing among their programs through the AMS International Technical Exchange, presented by the NNSA Office of Nuclear Incident Policy and Cooperation. The platform provides the opportunity for global aerial measuring teams to experience NNSA standards firsthand at the NNSS. 

“Our aviation professionals provide the effort and contributions that make the program successful — it’s all about the people,” said NNSS Federal Aviation Manager Les Winfield. “We’re blessed to have dedicated aircraft for this mission, enabling scientists, engineers, technical staff and pilots to work together in a collaborative fashion and have the premier aerial radiation detection program in the world. That is why other countries send their personnel, equipment and aircraft to work with AMS, so they can learn the techniques to most effectively perform radiation aerial surveys. We learn something from them, and they learn something from us — that raises the bar for us and participating countries.”

NNSS achieved numerous safety, operations, maintenance and training goals throughout 2023 and is preparing for the 2024 acquisition of new helicopters that will further enhance mission capabilities. DOE Office of Aviation Management award winners will be submitted to the U.S. General Services Administration for evaluation and consideration against other government agencies in the Federal Aviation Awards. The level of recognition serves as a reminder of the standard of excellence held at the NNSS.

“The type of technical flying we are expected to do is extremely challenging,” said NNSS Pilot Manager Mike Toland. “We’re very proud of the hard work we’ve done and products and services we provide. It’s nice to be recognized for being held to a very high standard and meeting our customer’s expectations. We’re extremely selective in who we ask to join our team, which is another example of high standards and expectations we have. We only hire the best people. We are the best emergency response air unit in the government , and these awards let people know that.”