July 13th, 2006 03:55 EST
Airmen handle missions big and small in Afghanistan by Master Sgt. Orville F. Desjarlais Jr.
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan (AFPN) -- Tech. Sgt. William Long likes a challenge, but a couple weeks ago, one challenge seemed insurmountable.
Air Force officials notified an Airman deployed to a remote forward operating base that his wife was gravely ill. The Air Force placed him on emergency leave, and then tried to figure a way to get him from the Afghan frontier to the United States.
As a controller in the air terminal operations center here, Sergeant Long decided to tackle the problem. Sergeant Long, deployed from Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich., found an Army helicopter that would transport the Airman from the forward operating base to Kabul. Then, he put the Airman on a convoy from Kabul to here -- where Sergeant Long ran into another problem. A Russian cargo plane had caught fire on the runway, closing the runway for a day.
Because C-130 Hercules specialize in short take-offs and landings, Sergeant Long found a C-130 aircrew willing to fly the desperate Airman to Kuwait, where he caught a rotator flight to Atlanta, where he met his family.
"There were no flights leaving here and (Sergeant) Long found a way to get this guy home," said 1st Lt. John Hoffmann, the aerial port's operations officer. "The guys are doing some amazing things -- not just the minimum. They're giving it their all."
In the ATOC nerve center, Sergeant Long, another controller and a duty officer track everything from pallets to people. Information assaults them from many different sources.
If it rings, they answer it.
If it pops up on the computer screen through one of the three software programs, they study it.
If it squawks over the radio, they listen.
If someone in the command post yells information through their window, they yell a reply.
If a person walks in with a question, that person walks out with an answer.
"It helps if we're able to multi-task," Sergeant Long said.
Master Sgt. Deidre McClain, a duty officer deployed here from Robins Air Force Base, Ga., said, "Our main duty is to make sure everything comes in on time and leaves on time."
Sergeant McClain is used to the maddening infusion of information. She remembers one day when five cargo aircraft landed at the same time. Based on the people and equipment at Bagram, the maximum number of aircraft they can unload at one time is three. Then, on some days, they feel lucky to get five aircraft in five hours.
However, because Bagram Air Base is the hub for freight and passenger movement for Operation Enduring Freedom throughout Afghanistan, there are very few relaxing days.
In June, the 455th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron moved 5,812 tons of cargo, 4.5 tons of mail and 12,506 passengers. If the Air Force used only C-17 Globemaster IIIs and loaded them to their maximum payload of 85 tons or 102 passengers per aircraft, the C-17s would be lined up end to end for 6.5 miles to equal the amount of cargo and people pushed through here in June.
It takes 16 Airmen working around the clock in 12-hour shifts to move that much equipment and people. One aircraft may be loaded with toilet tissue and office supplies, while the one next to it could have congressmen or senators on it. One will need a K-loader, while the other a stair truck.
The ATOC staff's biggest fear is to cause delays. So far, it has successfully dodged them. As of July 6, the staff had gone 33 days without an aerial port-induced delay. There are delays in takeoffs, but they are caused for other reasons, like mechanical problems, air-crew troubles, operations, planning or weather. The ATOC team has reduced aerial-port delays by 70 percent, according to Master Sgt. John Oyster, NCO in charge of air traffic control.
The team has also saved the Air Force thousands of dollars by recovering equipment like chains, nets and pallets. In salvaging117 pallets, Sergeant Oyster and his team saved the Air Force $269,000. They found areas on base where pallets were being used as floors for latrines and showers, as a pad for a water tank and flooring for a vehicle maintenance tent.
Also, by finding room where they could on cargo aircraft, they had hundreds of wall lockers flown to Kandahar, saving the Air Force more than $11,000 in trucking costs.
But, it's not saving the Air Force money that makes them happy. For Sergeant Long, it's the satisfaction he gains from helping other Airmen. Figuring a way to reunite an Airman with his ill wife is something Sergeant Long will proudly remember for the rest of his life.
"In fact, it made everyone in the unit feel good," he said.