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Maintaining world’s largest airlift at Al Udeid

  • Published
  • By Capt Phillip Ryan
  • 379th Air Expeditionary Wing

In January of this year, I deployed to Al Udeid Air Base to serve as the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing Chief of Protocol. I volunteered for this position and have enjoyed my time as a Protocol Officer. For the uninitiated, AUAB is massive, and home to many tenant organizations. Coincidentally enough, one that I interact with on regular basis is Air Mobility Command’s 8th Expeditionary Air Mobility Squadron, also known as The Mighty Ocho. 8 EAMS is one of 10 squadrons belonging to the 521st Air Mobility Operations Wing as a combined en-route maintenance and aerial port squadron: recovering, servicing, loading, and launching C-17s, C-5s, KC-10s, and commercial airliners (oftentimes rotators, but many others at the moment).

In early August, 8 EAMS’ sole Maintenance Operations Officer had to redeploy ahead of schedule and the position was empty for a short period while AMC found another to fill the suddenly vacant position. By mid-August, the writing was on the wall that the Afghanistan NEO was in the not-too-distant future and somewhere along the way, the decision was made for me temporarily step away from Protocol and put my maintenance hat back on until 8 EAMS’ permanent replacement arrived. Around lunchtime on 15 August, I left my office at the 379 AEW and reported to the 8 EAMS commander’s office where he briefed me on the current situation and we subsequently drove to the maintenance building. From that moment onward, the next 17 days were, at the calmest of times, nothing short of hectic. I contend the Airmen on the flightline were the proverbial glue that held parts of the operation together.

Prior to everything occurring, 8 EAMS would support only a handful of “dwell” C-17s (less than 10) and the aforementioned transient aircraft. On Sunday, 15 August, as I drove the flightline with one of the Pro Supers, a new C-17 landed every 20-30 minutes. By nightfall, the ramp was packed. Airfield Management actively worked with the host nation to turn active taxiways into parking spots. Multitudes of C-17s were on the ramp, poised and ready to fly into Afghanistan and ultimately land in Kabul to rescue our fellow Americans and myriad other nations’ citizens, chief among them Afghanistan’s.

Most importantly for the purposes of this story, the amount of C-17 maintainers on the ground had not yet changed. Fewer than 75 maintainers normally responsible for only a handful of C-17s and daily transients were outnumbered. Not a single one wavered; on the contrary, they were excited and ready for the challenge.

Sometime during the evening between Sunday and Monday, 15 & 16 August, those C-17s commenced life saving operations. You have likely read about REACH 871 (if not, see this link: https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/42079/packed-c-17-cargo-jet-out-of-kabul-actually-had-823-people-onboard-setting-new-record). 823 lives saved by one plane 8 EAMS maintainers serviced, launched, and recovered. Eight hundred twenty-three. On one aircraft. Several other C-17s landed that evening; not quite as full, but nevertheless laden with passengers.

That was NIGHT ONE.

Dozens of aircraft were launched and recovered EVERY DAY in the following days. Our manning numbers remained constant while the aircraft on the ramp and the throughput increased. By the end of Night Three, slightly more than 40 U.S. C-17s were on the AUAB’s overcrowded flightline; we thought we would never see more than that at one time on AUAB’s line.

On Day Five reinforcements arrived. More than 60 C-17 maintainers from across the globe arrived and almost immediately joined the effort. We launched 30-40 lines daily. We recovered 30-40 lines daily.

Keep in mind, this is August in Qatar. Daily high temperatures hover between 115 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Sunny conditions every day without a cloud in the sky. Nightly humidity reaches in excess of 80% and the ambient temperature does not fall below 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The only escape from the heat is on an aircraft, in a vehicle, or in a building. The flightline is massive. For the Airmen maintaining C-17s on the other side of the runways, there is never enough time to return to the maintenance building between launches or jobs. Shade and cold water are a maintainer’s best friend. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of MREs are consumed since no one has time to go to the DFAC. These maintainers are nothing short of stoic.

Refugees poured off of each aircraft that arrive. Hundreds of them. Men, women, children. Afghans desperate for a new start. Senior citizens, accomplished professionals, school-aged children, and toddlers & babies who have no idea where they are. The maintainers wanted nothing more than to help these people. On a daily basis, each maintainer I spoke with was ready for more. They could see the impact of their tireless efforts with their own eyes. They were happy to help. Honored to provide any assistance.

By Day Eight the aircraft started to show signs of fatigue. The amount of non-mission capable birds climbed from single to low double digits. Maintainers did not ask for a break. They troubleshot and repaired aircraft, paused to launch one or two or three others, and finished their previous work. Then on to the next. There was no sign that the ops tempo was slowing down. 30-40 launches and recoveries (EACH!) every day.

Shortly thereafter more reinforcements arrived. None questioned their roles. All eager to work. All eager to contribute. To everyone in maintenance, it was like we were in the eye of the storm: calm and professional while the world around us was in a continual state of flux. Base operations policies and procedures changed as the effort and population grew. Maintenance was constant. The maintainers consistently delivered safe, reliable airpower. 

The numbers of lives saved kept climbing. 10,000 saved. 20,000. 40,000. 60,000. And on and on and on. The women and men on the line could not…*would not* focus on those numbers. They remained focused on their task at hand. The amount of non-mission capable aircraft fell back to single digits. 25-35 launches daily. 25-35 recoveries daily. Still, far outpacing any home station flying schedule these Airmen were accustomed to.

New aircraft continued to arrive. By Day 13 we had maintained C-17s from nearly every Active Duty, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard base in the U.S. Air Force. A stunning feat. The Airmen were amazed but quickly said: “Cool. What’s next?” More launches. More fixes. More recoveries. No complaints.

Around Day 13-14 there were 46 U.S. C-17s on the ramp at one time. Forty-six.

Finally, on Day 16, the hour had come and it was time to launch the aircraft that would deliver our brothers & sisters in arms back to safe ground. Watching the elephant walk and the sequenced departure of C-17s was an emotional moment, but we were not entirely relieved until they all landed some hours later.

In 16 days, slightly more than 200 8 EAMS maintainers touched over 80 different C-17s. In other words, over one-third of the U.S. C-17 fleet. I do not know if that has ever happened, but I hazard to guess it has not.

All of this would not have been possible without a plethora of supporting organizations, staffs, agencies, and individuals. I will try to remember all of them, please forgive me if I neglect to mention one or two. Thank you: 521 AMOW, 521 AMOG, AMC/A4, 60 MXG, 62 MXG, 305 MXG, 436 MXG, and 437 MXG, 379 EMXG, 379 EAMXS, 379 EMXS, 5 EAMS, 618 AOC, and Boeing. We received an outpouring of support in the form of guidance, personnel, parts, supplies, and many care packages, all of which made life a little easier for those of us on the ground here. Most of all, thank you to the Mighty Ocho for trusting me to lead and allowing me to be a part of history.

My time in 8 EAMS has come to a close and I have returned to the Protocol Office for a few more months. At present, I do not know that I am able to completely summarize how I feel about the past 2.5 weeks, but I do know that I will forever be grateful to have led the group of maintainers I found myself alongside in this historic time. In late August 2021, after 17+ years in the Air Force, I may have reached my high-water mark; if that is indeed true, I am 100% okay with that.

If you stuck with me throughout this read, thanks. More importantly, when you get a chance, thank an 8 EAMS maintainer that was on the ground at AUAB from 15-31 August 2021. And ask them for a story, I know I will.