Thursday, March 19, 2009

New Kandahar unit prepares for troop increase

by Staff Sgt. Zachary Wilson, U.S. Air Forces Central combat camera news team

A C-130J Hercules assigned to the activated 772nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron arrives March 14 at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The new airlift squadron has been set up at Kandahar Airfield to assist with the increase of U.S. troops to the region. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- Kandahar Airfield officials activated the 772nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron March 15 here as the NATO base prepares for the build-up of forces to support Operation Enduring Freedom.

The newest airlift squadron in the Air Force will be flying the C-130J Hercules, and serve under the 451st Air Expeditionary Group to assist with the increase of U.S. troops to the region.

One day before the activation ceremony, local missions were being flown by American aircrews when the squadron's first four aircraft arrived at Kandahar Airfield.

"Tactical airlift is a high-demand asset here and we are at the leading edge of the Afghanistan surge of forces," said Col. Ted Osowski, the 451st AEG commander who is deployed from the Air Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. "The C-130J is a very capable aircraft and we are happy to have them. They're going to be busy."

The airfield inhabited by several coalition partners in southern Afghanistan is undergoing a massive expansion and construction in every direction as part of the installation.

The new mission will have the 772nd EAS Airmen focused primarily within Afghanistan, said Lt. Col. Dan Tulley, the 772nd EAS commander and native of Bell Air, Md.

"The 'bread and butter' of any combat airlift unit is tactical airlift," said Colonel Tulley, deployed from Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. "Being here in country will allow us to focus on the forward operating bases and getting supplies to the people who need it here on the ground."

The new unit, which will have eight aircraft and about 120 operations and maintenance Airmen, comes from the only active-duty Air Force organization flying the C-130J model in combat: the 41st Airlift Squadron from Little Rock AFB. Before being stood up at Kandahar Airfield, the unit was stationed with the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing at another installation within Southwest Asia responsible for operations for both the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters.

For the aviators performing the daily mission, the change is welcome.

"It's a definite change of scenery," said Capt. Shawn Johnson, a C-130 pilot deployed from Little Rock AFB. "We're looking forward to becoming Afghanistan-focused as our missions will become more specialized to this particular area, and at the same time, there will be more for us to study like some of the airdrops we'll be doing here. It will definitely broaden our knowledge further on how to utilize the aircraft."

Master Sgt. Patrick Drozd, a loadmaster also deployed from Little Rock AFB who calls Hallettsville, Texas, home, agreed.

"This is going to be fun," he said. "We are supporting the troops and the (forward operating bases) in-country, and being the only active-duty C-130J unit in theater, we will have the opportunity to lay the foundation for future C-130J operations here."

However, for the command staff of the 451st, bedding down a unit of 120 new people into an already cramped area was no easy task. The first issue to be tackled was gaining ramp space for the squadron's eight aircraft.

"Before we were able to park these aircraft on 'Whiskey' ramp, we had to find a new home for contractor Mi-8 helicopters that were out there previously," said Chief Master Sgt. Steven Bohannon, the 451st AEG superintendent deployed from McChord AFB, Wash. "We put out a contract for over 200,000 square feet of aluminum matting made up of four-foot-by-four-foot squares."

The contract was awarded to a local contractor, but they were not trained in the specifics of laying the matting, Chief Bohannon said. Adding to the already challenging task was the assignment of Air Force third-country national escorts; they would not arrive in time for construction to begin and there would be no place for the aircraft to park.

Working with a local civil engineer Red HORSE detachment, the 451st identified third-country national escorts from within its existing ranks and the Red HORSE Airmen began helping the local workers lay the matting, getting the project completed in time to relocate the Mi-8s and providing crucial ramp space for the soon-to-be-arriving C-130Js.

Once the ramp was completed, the 451st AEG needed to create workspace for the new Airmen. Chief Bohannon again reached out to the Red HORSE unit and a team of Air Force civil engineers who travel throughout the area of responsibility. They were able to erect a clamshell tent for maintenance and two small tents for operations.

"This group was the J-2 team from (U.S. Air Forces Central) A-7," Chief Bohannon said. "They travel the (area of responsibility) working on large projects and were able to complete this job in three days. They were nailing the last stakes the day these guys came in."

With the logistical issues completed, all the incoming 41st AS Airmen had to focus on was what they deployed to do: keep their aircraft flying.

"We can fulfill air tasking orders right now," said Tech. Sgt. Donny Poland, a crew chief from Little Rock AFB and a Philippines native who deployed ahead of the rest of his squadron on the advance team. "Being here really makes it feel like we are accomplishing something important and contributing."