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Sat, Apr 12, 2003

Iraqi Airlift Shows No Sign of Slowing

The airlift armada flying into Bashur Airfield in northern Iraq for the past two weeks has dropped off more than 10 million pounds of cargo bound for coalition forces. More than 170 C-17 Globemaster III and C-130 Hercules flights have brought in the cargo. The planes land day and night and the rumble of their engines rock this sprawling camp.

Master Sgt. Gerritt McCrory, the superintendent of mobile aerial port operations for the 86th Expeditionary Contingency Response Group, has a primary concern: that his 25 troops can control airfield operations in total darkness. Most of the aircraft land at night. The airmen who meet the aircraft, including aerial port, aircraft maintenance and command and control troops, do their job wearing night-vision goggles.

"Under night vision you have no depth perception. So pulling up to an aircraft in pitch black can be dangerous," McCrory said. "Plus the aircraft are all doing engines-running offloads. That adds more pressure because we have to offload them as fast as possible so they can get out of town."

During the past two weeks, McCrory's team has not suffered any injuries or damaged any aircraft, despite turning aircraft in from five-to-15 minutes.

"We're proud of that," McCrory said. "Not many units can perform at that level -- all the time -- while wearing night vision goggles."

The planes have brought in almost all the troops, equipment, supplies and food needed to sustain coalition forces in northern Iraq. And there is no end in sight for the massive airlift, he said. The intensive bombing campaign of Operation Iraqi Freedom has not damaged the base's long runway. It is the only runway capable of handling strategic airlift aircraft in Northern Iraq. That makes the C-17s the base's most frequent visitors.

For Maj. Dave Guevara, a C-17 aircraft commander from the 17th Airlift Squadron, Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., a recent mission to deliver an M1 Abrams main battle tank and its crew from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to Iraq was special. It was his first and last flight into Iraq. After a 20-year career flying "heavies," he volunteered one last time before retiring.

"I volunteered because I've been doing this for 20 years. It's what I do," Guevara said. "I needed to do this." Guevara's last flight wasn't a cake walk. With the 66-ton tank and full load of fuel, the C-17 was at its maximum takeoff weight. It was a bit sluggish to fly until the jet burned fuel. He wasn't worried, though. He'd delivered an Abrams before and flew this kind of mission into Afghanistan for a year.

As the jet flew into northern Iraq, the crew "went tactical." That is, it went into combat mode, increasing awareness to avoid potential Iraqi threats. The plane made a spiraling combat descent and landed. Then, with its engines still running, the ground crew offloaded the huge tank.

A few minutes later, the C-17 was winging its way back to its temporary home at Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany. By the time the jet landed, its crew had put in a 26-hour day. Guevara didn't care about the long day. He was doing what he'd miss in a few months.

"We fly wherever we're needed," Guevara said. "Anywhere our troops need support." [ANN Thanks Louis A. Arana-Barradas, AFPN]



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