521st AMOW: 2020, a year in review

  • Published
  • By Dr. Andrew Wackerfuss
  • 521st Air Mobility Wing

As the first light of dawn broke on Jan. 1, 2020, no one could have predicted the course of the year. Despite the challenges and pressures, the Airmen of the 521st Air Mobility Operations Wing exemplified our motto “Depend on us!”

The 521st AMOW and its geographically separated units were among the first Air Force units to respond as the threat of COVID-19 increased.

As Italy imposed the first European lockdown, the 724th Air Mobility Squadron at Aviano Air Base moved quickly to protect their people and continue the mission.

“Our leadership saw the threat and we implemented isolation and separated shifts,” said Senior Master Sgt. Timmothy Okkerse, 724th AMS superintendent. “Some of us were skeptical, but we pressed with it long before most other units.”

Ramstein AB also faced similar restrictions, which complicated operations for the Ramstein passenger terminal. By March, passenger and cargo transport became infinitely more complicated as countries imposed improvised requirements.

When passenger movements were disrupted, team Ramstein collaborated to create “Casa de Pax.” The terminal employed hundreds of cots, sleeping bags, and boxed meals. Around 455 passengers took shelter in this way - an unprecedented accommodation in a passenger terminal never intended as lodging.

Meanwhile, other 521st AMOW GSUs implemented their own contributions to the fight.

At Rota AB, Spain, and RAF Mildenhall, England, 725th AMS and 727th AMS Airmen played key roles in re-creating Prime Knight operations, which had long been dormant. Their efforts made sure that transiting air crews could navigate confusing national or station requirements, find food and lodging, and be ready to continue their missions.

Airmen at the 726th AMS at Spangdahlem AB, Germany, stepped up to meet the urgent need for face coverings early in the crisis when they were sold out or on back order. In the first week alone Airmen produced more than 1,700 face coverings.

GSUs across the 521st AMOW played key roles in distributing medical and food supplies as global transportation networks were stressed due to the pandemic. The 721st Aerial Port Squadron at Ramstein AB, regularly ensured cargo was offloaded and that supplies were available to Kaiserslautern Military Community commissaries.

At several points throughout the year, 721st APS shipped supplies through innovative ground transport networks, which 728th AMS Airmen received for use at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.

The 5th Expeditionary Air Mobility Squadron, at Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, played a similar role by supporting the transportation of food to American stations in Kuwait and Iraq. Multiple 521st AMOW units assisted in humanitarian efforts by shipping blood supplies, medicine and goods to U.S. Africa Command locations, including Ghana, Kenya, and Niger.

As the spread of COVID-19 continued, the 724th AMS, assisted in the initial transport of more than 22 million COVID-19 test kits from Italy to the United States.

521st AMOW Airmen were also a part of COVID-19 aeromedical evacuation teams formed at Ramstein AB, with the 721st Mobility Support Squadron and 10th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Flight leading those efforts COVID-19 teams consisted of 16 medical personnel to include three flight nurses, four aeromedical evacuation technicians, three critical care air transport team members, two biomedical equipment engineers, an infectious disease specialist, public health tech, logistician, and bioenvironmental engineer. Each performed a critical role in the safe transport of COVID-19 patients.

Additionally, the 721st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, at Ramstein AB provided decontamination teams to ensure safety for all.

By fall, 521st AMOW Airmen grew proficient in how to operate under COVID-19 conditions, which has enhanced overall operations. While COVID-19 proved to be the year’s major event, the 521st AMOW Airmen not only continued to operate through the crisis, they expanded their capabilities.

Airmen of the 521st AMOW continued to expand capabilities through innovation. This year, Airmen of “The Mighty Ocho” at the 8th Expeditionary Air Mobility Squadron, Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, pitched innovative ideas to the U.S. Air Mobility Command and U.S. Air Force Spark Tank’s. Master Sgt. Brett Kiser, 8th EAMS Non-commissioned officer in charge of ramp services, developed a simple wedge that could save millions in long-term wear and tear on C-17 aircraft ramps. Additionally, Staff Sgt. Santosh Devkota, 8th EAMS passenger service agent, developed a way for passenger terminals to use common access cards to process passenger information more efficiently.

The 521st AMOW remains on the leading edge within AMC testing the multi-capable Airman concept during exercise Nodal Lightning, which occurred twice in 2020. Nodal Lightning is conducted across all 521st AMOW stations in unison, which differs from the traditional approach of exercising units together at a single base.

The multi-capable Airmen concept includes evolving operational concepts within the U.S. Air Force, including Agile Combat Employment. The ACE concept will ensure U.S. Air Forces in Europe are ready for potential contingencies by enabling forces to operate from locations with varying levels of capacity and support.

“2020 could be seen as the beginning of a new era. We’re now on course to realize the expanded potential of the Global Air Mobility Support System,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Stapenhorst, 521st Air Mobility Operations Group director of operations. “It shows what we can bring to the fight in terms of global power projection, and it will last long into the future.”

With 2020 in the books, 521st AMOW Airmen stand ready to take on anything that comes their way.

In 2021, they will continue to provide all command and control, en route maintenance support, and air transportation services for theater and strategic air mobility missions in Europe and Southwest Asia.

Depend on us!