It’s a good gig, this new command post on an air base responsible for tracking everything that enters Canada’s airspace.
“We absolutely love North Bay, Canada,” Lt. Col. Rye Whitehead said last week.
A 1995 graduate of Missoula Sentinel High School, Whitehead is the dual-hatted man in charge of United States Air Force operations at the North American Air Defense (NORAD) base in Ontario, three hours north of Toronto.
Three weeks into the job, Whitehead and his family are settling into life on the northeast shore of giant Lake Nipissing, which is more than half again the size of a more familiar lake, Flathead. There’s a trout lake on the other side and a ski area right in town, on a giant hill called the Laurentian Escarpment.
Whitehead, 40, assumed his duties on July 7, at an elaborate change-of-command ceremony with the man he replaced, Lt. Col. Michael “Darth” Harmon, whose two-year assignment was up.
His parents, retired Missoula educators Bruce and Charlotte Whitehead, were on hand, as were his wife Laura’s family from Virginia and Pennsylvania.
“It was a family affair. My dad and my mom are awesome, and I was so happy for them that they could be there,” Whitehead said.
Bagpipes, national anthems of both countries and the U.S. Air Force songs were part of the impressive ceremony.
The base, Canadian Forces Base 22-wing in North Bay, is home to more than 6,700 personnel. Whitehead and 32 others are from the United States. They are aerospace control and warning operators, communications personnel, a transportation management representative, a personnel specialist and a medical liaison.
It's the largest U.S. military force in Canada, and the base is the only one in the world where U.S. forces are integrated into operations under overall Canadian command. Unlike stand-alone squadrons stateside, the U.S. personnel are integrated into various squadrons and directorates assigned to Canada's 22 wing.
“Really what we do, in partnership with Canada, is defend the North American continent,” Whitehead said.
Aerospace surveillance and control, attack warning and assessment, counter-drug operations and cyber threats are all under the 22-wing’s purveyance.
North Bay reports to the NORAD station in Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“There’s a commander of the North American aerospace defense command, Gen. (Lori) Robinson, and she’s in charge of NORAD in general. We are one subset of NORAD,” said Whitehead.
It’s quite a subset.
“You walk into this facility and you have to go through four security checks,” said Bruce Whitehead, who was treated to a high-clearance tour on his visit. “They have all these special seats and four big screens, like the size of the side of a house. Every plane that takes off in Canada is on it. You can be out in the bush in a little float plane and take off and he’s monitoring it on the screen.”
While Lt. Col. Whitehead hasn’t witnessed any international incidents in his brief time at North Bay, the excitement level rose a few months before he got there. America-Russia relations were intensifying in April and May, and Russian bombers and surveillance planes flirted with American air space off the coast of Alaska. At one point two bombers accompanied by fighter jets were intercepted by U.S. jets.
Whitehead commands the American detachment on the base and heads a combined group of between 30 and 40 Canadians and Americans as the operations officer for Col. Henrik Smith, the wing commander.
The command center is above ground, but last week Whitehead got a look at its predecessor. It's a bunker the size of a shopping center and 60 stories underground, a monumental remnant of Cold War history and one of the most unusual military installations on the continent. The bunker is empty now but provides evidence of what Whitehead called an “unbelievable” engineering feat.
“When you drive down there it’s 2 kilometers of incline, essentially a tunnel,” Whitehead said. “They wanted me to come down and look at the facility because sometimes they bring dignitaries like generals down there. It’s a piece of Canadian history and North American history.”
Whitehead has had an impressive climb to the most important American position in Canada.
A valedictorian at Sentinel, he was accepted as a cadet at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs in 1995, graduating four years later. He ran cross country and long distance for the Academy and earned Academic All-America honors. He had stops at Air Force bases in Florida and Georgia before joining the NATO Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACs) in Geilenkirchen, Germany, in 2003.
That’s where he met Laura Shipe, an Air Force major from New Mexico. They were married in 2005 and moved to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma in 2007. Whitehead was promoted to captain the following year. He spent time in Latvia on an embassy immersion fellowship and three years in the United Kingdom from 2011 to 2014, where he earned a master's in international relations at the University of Cambridge and worked in NATO with Prince William.
“My grandkid got a chance to give flowers to the queen,” Bruce Whitehead said proudly.
At the end of their stay, Rye Whitehead was promoted from captain to lieutenant colonel. The Whiteheads were stationed back in Oklahoma the past three years, with Rye serving as assistant and then director of operations for an Airborne Air Control Squadron. He was deployed this year in Southwest Asia for three months, directing operations for an AWAC squadron flying in Iraq and Syria, before being called to Canada.
Son Gideon, 7, was born in Oklahoma, and Skye, 4, in the UK, where his parents named him for one of their favorite places on earth, the Isle of Skye in Scotland.
In true Canadian style, the boys received a hockey stick at the July 7 ceremony.
“They loved that,” their dad said. “They’re trying to learn as much hockey as they can.”
Rye and Laura Whitehead have enrolled their sons in a French immersion school and are embracing life in a new, intriguing corner of the world that most of Rye's Missoula friends had never of.
“This is a two-year assignment, and I think it’s going to go by too fast,” he said. “We’re going to have too much fun.”