By Master Sgt. Orville F. Desjarlais Jr., USAF
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, July 12, 2006 – Air Force Tech. Sgt. William Long likes a challenge. But a couple weeks ago, one challenge seemed insurmountable. Air Force officials had notified an airman deployed to a remote forward operating base that his wife was gravely ill. The Air Force placed him on emergency leave, 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, Long decided to tackle the problem. 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. There, Long put the airman on a convoy to here, where Long ran into another problem. A Russian cargo plane had caught fire at the end of the runway, closing it for a day.
Because C-130 Hercules aircraft specialize in short takeoffs and landings, Long found a C-130 aircrew willing to fly the desperate airman to Kuwait. There, he caught a rotator flight to Atlanta, Ga., where he met his family. "There were no flights leaving here, and Long found a way to get this guy home," Air Force 1st Lt. John Hoffmann, the aerial port's operations officer, said. "These guys are doing some amazing things -- not just the minimum. They're giving it their all."
In the air terminal nerve center, 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 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," Long said.
Air Force Master Sgt. Deidre McClain, a duty officer deployed here from Robins Air Force Base, Ga., summed up the organization's mission. "Our main duty is to make sure everything comes in on time and leaves on time," she said. McClain is used to the maddening infusion of information. She remembers when five cargo aircraft landed at the same time. Based on the personnel and equipment at Bagram, the crew can unload no more than three aircraft at a time. But sometimes, usually on Sundays, they'll 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, very few Sundays are relaxing. During June alone, 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 III aircraft and loaded each to its maximum payload to push through this volume the C-17s would be lined up end to end for 6.5 miles.
It takes 16 airmen working around the clock in 12-hour shifts to move that much equipment and personnel. One aircraft may be loaded with toilet tissue, while the one next to it could have congressmen or senators aboard. The staff's biggest fear is to cause delays. So far, they've successfully dodged delays. As of July 6, they had gone 33 days without an aerial port-induced delay.
Any delays in take-offs 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 Air Force 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 such as chains, nets and pallets. In salvaging 117 pallets, 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 space wherever they could on cargo aircraft, the team was able to transport hundreds of wall lockers flown to Kandahar, saving the Air Force more than $11,000 in trucking costs. But team members say it's more than saving the Air Force money that makes them happy. For Long, it's the satisfaction he said he gets from helping other airmen. Figuring a way to reunite an airman with his ill wife is something he said he'll remember proudly for the rest of his life.
"In fact, it made everyone in the unit feel good," he said.
(Master Sgt. Orville F. Desjarlais Jr is assigned to 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs.)