Reserve Citizen Airman pilots nuclear alert aircraft, leads at AF Nuclear Weapons Center

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Timm Huffman
  • Headquarters Individual Reservist Readiness and Integration Organization

Col. Mark Arnholt, the Individual Mobilization Augmentee to the Air Force Nuclear Weapon Center vice commander, came to the nuclear enterprise late in his career but that hasn’t deterred him from making an impact there.

For most of his career, the Reserve Citizen Airman served as an F-16 pilot with the New Mexico Air National Guard. A civilian job change in 2012 introduced him to the nuclear enterprise, as well as the opportunities available in the Air Force Reserve.

That job, as an alert pilot flying a variant of the Boeing 737 for the National Nuclear Security Administration at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, had him interacting with others in the enterprise. He soon met some Air Force Reservists assigned to the Defense Thread Reduction Agency who introduced him to the Individual Reserve program and expanded his horizons as to what was possible for his career.

Arnholt said he started asking questions and was in the right place at the right time to land a position as the IMA to the deputy chief, joint reserve component, Defense Nuclear Weapons School.

IMAs are part of the Air Force Reserve’s Individual Reserve program. They are assigned to active-duty organizations or government agencies. They are required to serve between 24 and 36 days each year, depending on their position but may volunteer to fill additional needs. There are more than 7,200 IMAs assigned to major commands, combatant commands and government agencies around the world.

Arnholt served at DTRA for about a year before he received a call from Lt. Col. Kurt A. Kochendarfer, who was the 944th Operations Group Detachment 1 commander at the time, inviting him to come serve as an F-16 instructor in the Traditional Reserve at his new schoolhouse at Holloman Air Force Base. Arnholt agreed and changed his status to the Traditional Reserve program. However, shortly after beginning his F-16 requalification program, Arnholt was notified of his selection for promotion to colonel.

“I didn’t even realize he was eligible to put on colonel,” said Kochendarfer.

When the commander sat down with his instructor pilot to discuss the situation, Arnholt said he was planning to defer his promotion in order to train students at the schoolhouse. A fantastic decision in Kochendarfer’s opinion.

“He was great with students,” said Kochendarfer. “He’s one of those guys who could build rapport with students. He understood what they were thinking when they didn’t understand and could explain the problem in a new way."

After two years, Arnholt could no longer defer his promotion. In 2016 he found a colonel vacancy in the IMA program and assumed his current role as the IMA to the AFNWC vice commander, Col. George Farfour.

Farfour has had extensive experience working with IMAs and said he has great faith in their ability to backfill for the active duty. He hired Arnholt because it was apparent from the outset that he had the right attitude and the disposition to learn whatever he needed to get the job done right.

Since joining the AFNWC, Arnholt has helped re-energize the mission sets and identified areas where more reservists could be helpful; he is currently working phase two of a plan to increase reserve manning within the center’s five directorates. Arnholt said he sees a knowledge gap in the nuclear enterprise created by 40 and 50 year old technology, retirements and young, nuclear-trained talent being drawn out of the military for better-paying civilian jobs. He has worked to recruit some of that talent back into the reserve program.

“Being able to retain that expertise [in the IMA program] bridges that gap,” he said.

Farfour said one of the talents Arnholt brings to the AFNWC is his ability to find the right expertise and put it in the right area. He added that his IMA’s newness to the nuclear enterprise also provides perspective and ensures someone is always checking the blind spots.

“Col. Arnholt is not a two-week kind of reservist,” said Farfour. “He’s a full member of the team and a leader."

Throughout his time in the Air Force Reserve, Arnholt continued to fly for the NNSA as a federal alert pilot. According to the NNSA website, the agency was established by Congress in 2000 as a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Energy and is responsible for enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear science.

Arnholt’s plane, a Boeing 737-400 COMBI, has a cargo compartment in the front, accessed via a large side door that, when opened, peals back about a quarter of the aircraft, and a passenger compartment in the rear. Arnholt said his job consists of two measures: parts delivery and emergency response. The majority of his time is spent transporting components used to repair and replace parts on nuclear weapons to locations around the U.S. 

When he’s not transporting components, Arnholt is preparing for emergency situations. In the event of a nuclear event, Arnholt would be called to fill the passenger compartment on his aircraft with scientists from the national laboratories located in Albuquerque and fly them to the site of the disaster. He has yet to be called on for this duty but trains for it frequently. Early this year he participated in exercise Vigilant Shield 2017, an annual exercise sponsored by the North American Aerospace Defense Command and led by Alaskan NORAD Region, in conjunction with Canadian NORAD Region and Continental NORAD Region, who undertake field training exercises aimed at improving operational capability in a bi-national environment.

Arnholt said his role as an Air Force Reservist not only complements his civilian work, it has also allowed him to do things that interest him and advance his Air Force career.

“I was kind of just looking to do stuff that was enjoyable, productive and useful,” he said. “It wasn’t intentional, but as a result, I pushed my career along." 

The Air Force Reserve is open to current military personnel who are transitioning from active duty, former members of any branch of the U.S. military, as well as candidates with no prior military experience. Individuals interested in learning more about opportunities in the Air Force Reserve can contact an Air Force Reserve recruiter by visiting More information about the IMA program is available at