Top guns

The Laboratory’s Air Force Fellows reflect on their time at Los Alamos.

By J. Weston Phippen | July 26, 2021

Af Fellows Opt
Air Force Fellows Lieutenant Colonel Dan Knerl (left) and Major Creighton Moorman stand in front of the Hans Bethe house in Los Alamos, New Mexico. During World War II, Bethe was head of the Theoretical Division at Project Y, the Los Alamos branch of the Manhattan Project. Los Alamos National Laboratory

Although time-honored tradition says that pilots can only divulge the reasoning behind their call signs over a beer, it’s safe to say that Lieutenant Colonel Dan “COBRA” Knerl and Major Creighton “Bull” Moorman have led exciting careers in the U.S. Air Force.

The two are the current Los Alamos National Laboratory Air Force Fellows, who, after arriving at Los Alamos in July 2020, will finish their residency this summer. Each year, the Lab welcomes a senior and junior fellow—based on rank and years in the Air Force—with the idea of exchanging knowledge. The fellows get a first-hand look at how scientists develop and maintain the nation’s nuclear deterrent. In return, the Lab learns from some of the most accomplished Air Force men and women who work with Los Alamos–designed weapons, once those weapons are in Department of Defense custody.

Prior to coming to Los Alamos, Knerl, the senior fellow, was a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber pilot stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, where he commanded the 72nd Test and Evaluation Squadron. “Test pilots like the late Chuck Yeager are in charge of making sure aircraft manufacturers meet the military’s requirements, so they’re the first to test out things like new planes,” Knerl says. “We’re the next step. We develop the tactics, techniques, and procedures for aircraft or weapon systems that will be put to use in the combat environment.”

Moorman, the junior fellow, spent the previous three years in South Dakota, at Ellsworth Air Force Base, as chief pilot and evaluator for the 28th Operations Group. Before that, Moorman started his career piloting the B-52H Stratofortress, a Cold War relic that can deliver both conventional and nuclear strikes. In 2016, he transitioned to the B-1B Lancer, a variable-wing, supersonic jet limited to conventional operations by treaty. “The B-1 may only be a conventional platform, but it’s flexibility and large payload are instrumental to the overall Global Strike Command mission,” he says.

Like all fellows selected to study at the Lab, Knerl and Moorman are among the top of their classes in the Air Force. Knerl had heard about the program from a former fellow and B-2 pilot, and although he knew of the extensive weapons work done at Los Alamos, he says he was surprised to learn just how expansive the Lab’s research truly is. “All the COVID-19 projects, the space and Mars rover programs—it has been really fascinating to see the diverse work here,” he says.

Moorman agrees. “One thing that surprised me,” he says, “is that beyond all of the science and engineering done here, there’s also a lot of policy and strategy discussion.” Every month, Moorman participates in the Lab’s Condor group, which gathers (virtually) to discuss recent policy documents and deterrence papers.

Moorman has spent much of his time at the Lab researching hard and deeply buried targets, which enemies might use to hide and protect critical capabilities, though he can’t say much more about his work. Knerl has researched the nuclear weapon design and certification process. Specifically, he’s looking at “the use of modeling, simulation, and artificial intelligence to improve fielding timelines while maintaining nuclear surety,” he says.

When they leave the Lab, Moorman is bound for Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, for a job as the bomber analyst in U.S. Strategic Command's nuclear planning division. Knerl will head to Bolling Air Force Base, in Washington, D.C., to work in the office responsible for the new B-21 bomber requirements.

“My experience at the Lab will help me better work through the nuclear certification requirements for the B-21,” Knerl says. “I’m sure the Air Force will benefit from the knowledge I’ve gained at Los Alamos.”