By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 3, 2007 - Airmen of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing are a two-hour flight away from combat operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but they know they're big players in the fight. Whether providing intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance support, flying tankers or supporting the mission on the ground, airmen at this base know it's all about the warfighters, said Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Angelo Wilson. U.S. Central Command Air Forces policy prohibits releasing its bases' names and locations.
"Our No. 1 priority is to contribute to the war on terror and support the guys on the ground," said Wilson, one of the highest-ranking noncommissioned officers here.
Everyone based here, regardless of their job, understands the stakes.
"If we don't fly, there will be an American or a coalition life lost in Iraq or Afghanistan," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Larry Wells, wing commander. "The boots on the ground need the intelligence we provide."
To drive that point home, Wells personally briefs every airman rotating through here, typically for four-month deployments, about the mission and its direct impact.
"He makes sure people understand where we fit in and what will happen if we're not there," Wilson said. "People understand at every level here that if we don't have that picture up in the sky, our fellow brothers and sisters on the ground could die."
That message resonates throughout the wing. "Our motto here is 'One Team, One Fight,'" said Airman 1st Class Chrissina Tavake, who works in security forces. "No matter what our job is, we all support the mission. Everybody here has a role."
The mission here centers around two U-2 "Dragon Lady" high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, three RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles and three Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft that provide critical "eyes in the sky" over Iraq, Afghanistan and sometimes the Horn of Africa.
"Since 2003, we've had one of these aircraft airborne over one of those locations 24 hours a day," Wells said.
The mix of aircraft here provides a broad range of capabilities: the U-2's ability to fly at 70,000 feet, the AWACS' "look-down radar" that gives a 360-degree view of the horizon and can "see" more than 200 miles, and the Global Hawk's ability to remain on station for as long as 24 hours.
Together, these aircraft get critical intelligence information to ground troops who need it, often within five minutes of gathering it.
"We realize the contribution we're making every time we launch," Wilson said. "We get feedback from our Army and Marine brethren on how great it is to have that link that we provide."
Two types of tankers here, KC-135 Stratotankers and KC-10 Extenders, keep the aircraft flying as long as the mission demands. They fuel not only the 380th Wing's intelligence-gathering planes, but other U.S. and coalition aircraft in the region. "There's not an aircraft flying in Iraq or Afghanistan we don't support," Wells said.
The Global Hawk crews here have a unique cooperative arrangement with their colleagues at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. They launch the vehicles and hand the controls over to operators at Beale. Then, after missions that typically run 18 to 20 hours, the crews here take back the controls to land and recover the vehicles.
Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Engle, U-2 squadron commander, said flying the aircraft is no easy task. "It's a very unforgiving aircraft as far as aerodynamics," he said.
Pilots represent a cross-section of the Air Force, representing "virtually all the weapons systems," he said. They have to survive an intensive two-week interview process to make the cut to fly.
Complicating the mission is the harsh environment, where temperatures often creep well into the triple digits. As Wells escorted media around the tarmac, the thermometer was reading 141 degrees.
To help offset those conditions, crews keep the Global Hawks in canvas-covered hangars, or "big tents," until just before takeoff. Whenever possible, they launch at night.
U-2 crews, who wear pressurized space suits and helmets throughout their missions, have found ways to cut the time they spend suited up on the ground in the stifling desert heat from 45 minutes to as little as seven, Wells explained.
Currently on his 10th deployment since joining the Air Force in 1980, Wilson said the tough conditions here and the time away from loved ones at home pale in comparison to knowing he and his fellow airmen are helping save American lives on the battlefield.
After nearly 28 years in the Air Force, Wilson said he's seen major changes in how the United States goes to war and how the services support each other to accomplish the mission. He's particularly proud of the contribution the Air Force is making to support warfighters on the ground.
"We understand what airpower brings to the fight," he said.