Whiteman Hosts Drive-In Air Force Ball During Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic inspired the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., to pioneer a new kind of USAF birthday celebration: a drive-in Air Force ball.

The idea to transition the ball from an in-person party to a drive-in celebration stemmed from unique challenges presented by the ongoing coronavirus crisis, said Master Sgt. Joshua Braswell, the 509th Security Forces Squadron Antiterrorism & Force Protection Planner, who served on the event’s planning committee.

The flyer from Whiteman Air Force Base’s 2020 Air Force Ball. Graphic: 509th Bomb Wing/courtesy

After Braswell and Senior Master Sgt. Kelii Kanoa got the 509th Bomb Wing command chief’s permission to hold an Air Force birthday celebration despite the ongoing pandemic, they assembled a team who evaluated potential options for holding an event in the old and new normal, respectively, Braswell explained in a Sept. 24 response to questions from Air Force Magazine. 

The committee started planning a traditional ball in June, but once they realized they wouldn’t be returning “to the old normal,” the committee decided to pursue “a new type of event,” he said.

“While adapting our plans, one of our committee leads … introduced the idea of a ‘drive-in movie’ style event,” Braswell continued. “This was to allow service members and their spouses to pull up in their vehicles, watch an AF birthday video on a big screen and still have a date night (like other AF Balls), which eventually turned into a family night out instead (to appropriately accommodate childcare).”

Master Sgt. Timothy Carlson, 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron first sergeant (left), Chief Master Sgt. Nadine Carlson, 509th Civil Engineer Squadron superintendent (right) and their son (center) sit together during the Air Force Ball at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., on Sept. 19, 2020. The Carlson family and many attendees set up chairs to watch the event while safely distancing from others in adherence to COVID-19 restrictions. Photo: Airman 1st Class Christina Carter

They also tweaked the dress code to fit the “family friendly” mood, he said, letting troops don their Uniform of the Day and asking civilians to wear business casual attire, and personalized the event’s programming.

“We decided on the theme ‘AF Gratitude,’ which allowed for some added personalization to the video,” he explained. “Instead of showing a ‘typical’ AF video that incorporated the different occupational areas contributing to the mission, we decided to include the Total Force … and allow them a way to comment and express their gratitude for the AF and what it has provided them.”

Finally, the committee decided against charging admission to “alleviate any additional stress in peoples’ lives” and to give the unorthodox event the best possible shot at success, he said. The wing also allowed people to RSVP via a QR code to make the process easier, wing spokesperson Tech. Sgt. Alexander W. Reidel told Air Force Magazine in a Sept. 24 email.

But though the event was different than Whiteman Air Force Balls of yore, the wing didn’t throw every aspect of tradition out the window. 

The base’s “Honor Guard still posted the colors and conducted the POW/MIA table ceremony”—albeit with sparking cider, Braswell noted. 

Whiteman Air Force Base Honor Guardsmen present the colors before the Air Force Ball at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., on Sept. 19, 2020. Attendees stood outside of their vehicles during the Honor Guard’s presentation, while maintaining plentiful social distancing to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. Photo: Airman 1st Class Christina Carter

And 509th Bomb Wing Commander Col. Jeffrey Schreiner still delivered a speech to attendees, just from atop an outdoor platform, as shown in a photo shared by the wing.

Whiteman AFB celebrates the 73rd anniversary of the AF with drive-in ball
509th Bomb Wing Commander Col. Jeffery Schreiner speaks during the Air Force Ball at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., on Sept. 19, 2020. Schreiner addressed attendees and said he was grateful for Team Whiteman’s mission contributions during the year and the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Airman 1st Class Christina Carter

The innovative event was an all-of-base effort that garnered assistance from civil engineering, security forces, maintenance, operations group, public affairs, protol, and Honor Guard Airmen, in addition to volunteers and a “cinema crew that provided the screen and FM transmitter,” Braswell said.

“From all of the feedback we have had from other bases, we are the first base to execute a drive-in style AF Ball and the team of [Senior Master Sgt.] Gwendolyn West, [Master Sgt.] Joshua Crosby, [Master Sgt.] Jeffrey Neahr, [Master Sgt.] Adrienne Sanders, [Master Sgt.] Charles Cooper, [Master Sgt.] Ryan Skuller, [Master Sgt.] Shawn Carroll, and [Master Sgt.] Sherrod Williams did an outstanding job coming together to ensure this was a success,” he said.