Ramstein airlift mission at full speed

Senior Airman Aaron Ballegos runs a diagnostic check on the radio and navigation system on a C-5 Galaxy at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Thursday, March 30, 2006. Airman Ballegos, of Seattle, Wash., is a communications and navigations specialist with the 723rd Aircraft Maintenance Unit. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. John E. Lasky)

Senior Airman Aaron Ballegos runs a diagnostic check on the radio and navigation system on a C-5 Galaxy at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Thursday, March 30, 2006. Airman Ballegos, of Seattle, Wash., is a communications and navigations specialist with the 723rd Aircraft Maintenance Unit. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. John E. Lasky)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- This airlift hub is now the main "pit stop" on the United States-to-Iraq supply route because of its high-tech facilities and ability to fix aircraft.

That makes Ramstein not only the "gateway to Europe," but also the "gateway to U.S. Central Command," said Col. Jeff Derrick, commander of the 723rd Air Mobility Squadron, who runs airlift support operations here.

Halfway between the United States East Coast and Southwest Asia, Ramstein is "absolutely critical" to the Air Force's global war on terrorism role, he said.

"This is such a strategic location because we provide all the major maintenance" for C-17 Globemaster III and C-5 Galaxy transports, the colonel from Tignall, Ga., said. "We can load and unload them, service them, fix them and get them on their way again."

That's because the base near Kaiserslautern -- which is operating at full speed -- has the means to support transiting aircraft and their aircrews.

"We provide aerial port services, command and control -- and we have all the aircrew amenities," he said.

To do this, the unit has some of the Air Force's best facilities, courtesy of Rhein-Main Transition Program dollars. Rhein-Main Air Base, near Frankfurt, was the Air Force's main airlift hub in Europe for 60 years. It ended its airlift support mission in October 2005. Ramstein and Spangdahlem Air Base, 80 miles northeast of here, gained its mission.

Both bases had to effect major changes and build the support facilities to do the task. A large part of the construction funds came from a conglomerate of German government and civilian agencies. So for the past few years, Ramstein has been a continual construction zone.

The 723rd, located on a ramp on the west side of the base's south runway, has a new building that houses the unit and a state-of-the-art automated warehouse. It also has a new fleet services section, passenger terminal, maintenance hangar and a ramp for 20 to 25 wide-body cargo jets.

Colonel Derrick said it would be tough for the United States to replicate the base's available capacity anywhere else in the region.

"Could we do it? Yes. We'd find another place and with our American ingenuity and military figure out how to do it," he said. "But it would be hard."

Squadron Airmen don't have the time to think about the strategic value of the base where they serve. They're too busy with the two key missions they support.

Perhaps their most visible job is handling the passenger traffic flying in and out of the region, on moves or deployments. On average, passenger service troops move from 24,000 to 25,000 passengers through the base a month.

But it's the airlift headed for Southwest Asia that is the unit's bread-and-butter mission. Most cargo arrives in Europe via sealift and trucked to regional depots. It arrives at Ramstein via truck.

"But the high-priority missions -- the hot stuff that needs to get to the war zone fast -- arrives by airlift," the colonel said.

Each day, the air transportation troops download 20-plus aircraft full of cargo. And, on average, more than 10,000 tons of cargo -- which arrives via aircraft or truck -- transits the base each month.

"That's more than 200 full C-17 loads each month, all processed here," the colonel said. "We provide warfighters the beans and bullets -- the supplies -- to conduct the war."

That's why it's critical to keep airplanes flying, said Capt. Justin Radford. As the officer in charge of the squadron's aircraft maintenance unit, he is responsible for the 120 aircraft maintainers. Aircraft include C-17s and C-5s, C-130 Hercules, KC-135 Stratotankers, KC-10 Extenders and a variety of commercial transports, so maintainers must be versatile.

"They have to know how to maintain C-5s and C-17s, which is unique," the captain said. "The standard maintainer at a stateside base will only have to know one of those airframes. And they'll have to know their specialty -- like hydraulics or electrical."

Maintainers must also learn a crew chief's job, the captain from Santa Rosa, Calif., said. They must be able to launch, recover, inspect and service aircraft. Doing the three jobs means maintainers -- already pulling 12-hour shifts -- must also know a book's worth of information.

"For example, an aircraft electrician has 377 C-5 tasks and 483 C-17 tasks," the captain said. "So just to be competent, he's got 860 tasks to know -- plus the 55 crew chief tasks.

"That's a lot to put on one person," Captain Radford said. "The expectations and demands on our maintainers are unlike any other maintenance unit in the Air Force."

In the cavernous squadron building, the more than 220 Airmen that handle freight stay busy, too. Airmen work in four sections: cargo processing, ramp services, truck dock or special handling. On a typical day they may handle passengers, munitions, military rations, vehicles, mail -- even blood. An always hot cargo is bullet-proof windows for Humvees in the war zone.

No matter the cargo, the air transporters are ready for the task because they have to be, said Staff Sgt. Dave Rowland, a ramp services specialist from Platte City, Mo. He said the cargo arrives on a host of aircraft and often so varied that it keeps the troops on their toes.

"You never know what to expect," he said. "There's always a different kind of load to deal with, so you have to be ready for everything."

Staying ready is easier than most would think, considering the number of aircraft each troop unloads or loads each week. They get plenty of practice.

"We download 20 or more missions a day," the sergeant said. "So we have a lot of expertise out there on the line."

The squadron's main support is to Southwest Asia. To meet customer demands, it provides command and control for more than 20 "channel missions" routes. Colonel Derrick said these are scheduled, routine missions.

"This is a routine cargo movement service," the colonel said. "Every week at a certain time the customer knows he's going to receive an aircraft -- a C-17, C-5, KC-10, whatever -- with supplies to conduct the war."

The channel missions fly to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Israel, Egypt, Italy, Bosnia and other locations. Each aircraft that goes into the Southwest Asia is full of cargo.

"We move cargo on the front end of the mission," the colonel said. "Then we reconfigure the aircraft and return with patients. We do that every day."

But during the past year the emphasis has been on moving pallets to Iraq that will cut down the number of overland truck convoys needed to move them within the country, said Staff Sgt. Chad Koerber. The cargo processing specialist from Warsaw, Ky., deals with the cargo brought by truck to the freight center.

He said his section separates cargo into different channel missions. Sometimes, cargo must wait until more arrives so a big enough pallet can go to one location. This saves money and resources, is more efficient, cuts convoys in Iraq and is safer for truck drivers, he said.

"Because as soon as they unload the cargo in Iraq, someone has to move it" to the customer, the sergeant said. "This way, only one aircraft is carrying the cargo -- and maybe it will only take one convoy to move it to its destination.

"That puts less people in harm's way," he said.

Though support for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are the squadron's main concert, the air transportation Airmen also must also learn to deal with unscheduled missions and events. For example, during the Hurricane Katrina humanitarian response, the Ramstein air transportation troops stayed busy. They also supported the Pakistani earthquake and Indian Ocean tsunami relief operations.

"During Hurricane Katrina we were the airlift hub for Europe's response," Captain Radford said. "All of the European countries that provided relief sent it here. Then we inspected it, packaged it and put it on aircraft to move it stateside."

Sergeant Rowland said, "When anything big like that happens, Ramstein is probably going to help out."

With the work they must do, flexibility is an important trait squadron Airmen must have -- or acquire. As construction goes on around them, they continues to deal with an ever-increasing workload.

The squadron commander said his people are used to the workload. What keeps them motivated? Knowledge that many people depend on their efforts, Colonel Derrick said.