Vance Air Force Base personnel are raising fitness bar with the Iron Airman Challenge
By JAMES NEAL | Enid (Okla.) News & Eagle | Published: February 17, 2019
VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. (Tribune News Service) — The staff at Vance Air Force Base Bradley Fitness and Sports Center have a challenge for all members of Team Vance: “Think you’re fit? Try being an Iron Airman.”
The Iron Airman Challenge combines some of the toughest standards of physical fitness tests from each branch of the military into one “supertest.”
Iron Airman began in 2012 as an initiative of the 11th Bomb Squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier Parish, La. The program soon spread to all of the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale.
William Wharton, then a lieutenant colonel who commanded the 11th Bomb Squadron, said the Iron Airman Challenge arose from a desire to inspire and motivate airmen beyond the minimum Air Force fitness standards.
“I set out to challenge and inspire a few folks with the program and have found myself inspired by their efforts instead,” Wharton said in an Air Force news release. “I believe physical fitness is merely an outward representation of the deeper traits of resiliency, determination, endurance and grit.”
The test requires a maximum number of pull-ups, maximum push-ups in two minutes, maximum sit-ups in two minutes and a timed 2-mile run.
To earn a perfect score of 400, a male younger than 30 would have to complete 21 pull-ups, 91 push-ups, 100 sit-ups and run the 2 miles in 12:16 or less. The entire test must be finished in less than 30 minutes. A candidates must have a minimum combined score of 360 from all four events to be named an Iron Airman.
Andrew Gebara, then a colonel and commander of the 2nd Bomb Wing, said in an Air Force news release the Iron Airman Challenge drives airmen to higher standards to meet the increasing demands of the service.
“The job we do is more demanding now than ever, and the importance of personal resiliency has increased proportionately,” said Gebara. “Physical fitness is a significant part of a person’s overall feeling of well-being, and having goals is a huge part of physical fitness. For airmen who have mastered the Air Force physical fitness test, the Iron Airman Challenge is a significantly higher goal to which those with a competitive spirit can aspire.”
‘Not designed to be easy’
Iron Airman came to Vance more than three years ago, when Maj. William Graff transferred from Barksdale to the 71st Flying Training Wing.
Since then, only 19 members of Team Vance have earned the title “Iron Airman.” Two Iron Airman honorees have been dependents, one is a contractor and the rest have been on active duty — predominantly junior officers.
Kellie Jensen, the fitness program manager at Vance, said the number of people who’ve achieved Iron Airman status is so low for one reason: “It’s not designed to be easy.”
But, for those who have taken on the challenge, Jensen said it’s a goal that can motivate even highly fit airmen.
“Not everyone passes the PT test with flying colors,” Jensen said, “but on the flip side, for some people, the PT test isn’t really a challenge, and this was another way to motivate and challenge them.”
Those who pass the test receive Iron Airman T-shirts, their names engraved on a plaque in the fitness center and recognition on the marquee at the main gate and on base social media pages.
Not just for the T-shirt
Capt. Derek Van De Wege with the 71st Operations Group, who is an instructor pilot with the 8th Flying Training Squadron, said he took on the Iron Airman Challenge as a goal that would challenge him physically and mentally.
“My goal has always been to max out the PT test,” Van De Wege said — a goal he’s only missed twice since he joined the Air Force.
“Iron Airman is a step up from the PT test,” Van De Wege said, “and it keeps me in that ‘Fit to Fight’ mentality.”
When he first started training for Iron Airman, Van De Wege said the standards, particularly the pull-ups and sit-ups, were daunting.
“At the beginning, there was that thought that ‘There’s no way I can do this,’ ” Van De Wege said. “But, if I don’t have a goal, I’ll just stay at the status quo.”
Van De Wege started training with now-retired Lt. Col. Bill Cook, who had a pull-up bar installed in their office.
“We started competing against each other, and that made me realize I could do it … when we really pushed ourselves,” Van De Wege said.
An already-stringent workout routine of five days per week was expanded into 10 weeks of intense training building up to the Iron Airman test.
Van De Wege and Cook drove each other to improve until they both passed the test, two days before Cook retired.
The recognition that comes with passing the Iron Airman Challenge is nice, Van De Wege said. “My wife thinks it was all just for the T-shirt,” he said with a laugh. But, he said, the real reward is breaking personal barriers.
“I’m encouraging people to do it,” Van De Wege said. “I think most people just think they can’t do it.”
Take the challenge
The staff at the Bradley Fitness and Sports Center will help aspiring Iron Airmen design workouts to strengthen weak areas for the test.
Iron Airman is open to all members of Team Vance, including active-duty and retired servicemembers, contractors, government employees and dependents.
For information or to schedule an Iron Airman Challenge test, contact Kellie Jensen at (580) 213-6639 or firstname.lastname@example.org.