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Witnessing the End of an Era

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Max Despain
  • 376th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Kyrgyz journalists and photographers trailed off the buses and spread out to observe a mostly empty flightline parking ramp. There was departing cargo squatting on the first parking spaces of the Foxtrot ramp of the Manas International Airport where once KC-135s had been poised to fulfill their combat missions over Afghanistan.

The sunny scene contrasted with the morning only 10 days prior when we were battling seven inches of snow and sub-zero temperatures to huddle in a cargo hold for the last KC-135 combat mission flying out of Transit Center at Manas.

The pre-dawn on Feb. 25 was bitter, although nothing compared to the blankets of snow and gales of wind that had closed down Manas International Airport the day prior. Maintainers bustled around a KC-135 Stratotanker, spraying off the last vestiges of the snow and overnight ice that had coated tail number 57-1488.

Historically speaking, this aircraft perched on tarmacs around the world, fueling fights, supporting flights and savings lives since 1957. From the American mid-west and Switzerland, to deserts and beyond, this bird had served in every capacity as the backbone of the Air Force tanker force.

Specially designated Shell 01 this morning, it once again taxied past the ice and fog of war to carry six passengers into Afghanistan, bent on fueling the flight.

At the controls for takeoff, Col. Michael Seiler, 376th Expeditionary Operations Group commander lifted off into the frigid morning as if it was any other combat mission. Eavesdropping on my headset, I heard him tell the other pilots Lt. Col. James Mach, 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron commander, and Maj. Rod Jones, 22nd EARS instructor pilot, as well as the boom operator, Senior Master Sgt. Jeffrey Bishop, 22nd EARS superintendent, that today was different: "I don't know about you guys," he said, "but I got chills rolling down that runway for the last time."

Winging our way toward the point where we would cross over into Afghanistan, I was a fly on the wall, listening in on the variety of conversations that were surely both common and uncommon to a typical KC-135 flight.

There was talk of kids hitting their "double digit" birthdays. The colonel told a story about his son yelling, "Hey, what's your name" to President George W. Bush. Who simply answered, "Bush."

But they also discussed the words to use when they landed that might sound right to convey the sense partnership they had shared with the Kyrgyz people at Manas International Airport.

Bishop broke in with, "Funny, when you think about doctrine and strategy, it all boils down to this."

Seiler: "Yeah. Thunderstorms and night boxes -- ad hoc refueling ... guys getting shot at." He paused, "I wish there was an honest to God way to track exactly how many times that a tanker could be there and American lives were saved. We're there 24/7 ... that's why we do it."

Bishop added "It always comes down to people, from the JTAC (joint terminal attack controller) to the people on the ground, it's Airmen with a big 'A.'"

"I love our dirt boys," the colonel interjected, "True professionals with laser sharp mission focus."

"This team," Bishop said, "I would go to war with anytime."

A low mumble came over the headset, outsiders giving us notice that we were getting ready to cross into Afghan airspace.

"Hey, where is PA (public affairs) anyway," Seiler growled, "I thought they were supposed to be covering this flight."

Called out of my anonymity, I traded off the headset to the broadcaster who would be using the earpiece to record his interviews with the crew.

Wrapped in the powerful roar of the four engines and radio silent without a headset, I concentrated on the still images that would capture the essence of this final flight.

More than 200 flags filled the cargo area. People bought flags at the local base exchange, flying them for family members and loved ones as reminders of the last combat air refueling mission out of the Transit Center at Manas.

Soon enough the first of four A-10 Thunderbolt IIs was ready for refueling. Positioned on the left side of the boom operator, I could see that the window looked like a river of burnt orange oil as the leftovers of seven inches of snow and extensive de-icing fluid took its toll on the window visibility, making it the worst the senior master sergeant had seen in 15 years. A gray blur, vaguely shaped like an A-10 hovered behind the boom. If I twisted sideways and to the left, I could just glimpse a view through about an inch of glass on the side.

The colonel would laugh later and call it "Refueling by braille" but of the nine air refueling missions I had experienced in the past 11 months, this blind connection was the smoothest. The whine of the boom, the push of the extension, the firm jar of connection: gas was pumping in what seemed like record time. With each of the six receivers, including two F-16 Fighting Falcons, the view was just as obscured and the connection just as smooth.

Seiler started the flight by noting, "When you think about it, we're going to fly our last sortie just like we did our first one: fighter support for troops in contact."

With the fighters topped off and troops fighting the mission covered, we turned for home station. The transition out of Afghan airspace was anti-climactic, just another moment in the roar of the engines.

When we were within range of Bishkek Tower, another faint voice came over the headset. Maj. Anthony Amoroso, 22nd EARS director of operations who would be piloting one of the last KC-135s departing about the same time our mission landed, sent a blessing. He said, "Hey guys, Take care and God speed."

The hush of throttled back engines as we reduced altitude matched the bittersweet feeling of returning from a successful mission that would be the last combat sortie from Kyryzstan.

Back on the headset, I listened as the pilots ran the checklist for landing.

Mach: "Down to six (thousand feet), crew. Autopilot's disengaged."

Later, Seiler: "Three to go"

"Roger." from Mach. And then, "Two to go on my side. Speed's good, gear's tracking."

Seiler: "One to go."

"One to go, colonel."

"Set for landing, pilot. Everything looks better covered in snow," Seiler added. "One to go."

Mach: "Speed's good, let's go flaps 20. Land zero-eight crew, parking F-10."

Seiler: "Speed now one-four-one plus two (knots) for a gust. Approach and landing checklist is complete."

The male automatic voice gave a robotic countdown in the background: 100. 50. 30. 20. 10.

The pilot set the wheels onto the frozen surface as smoothly as ice skating, rolling before smoothly braking to taxi speed.

"Nice landing," said Seiler, "That's the way you finish! Amazing flight folks, well done."

Seiler called in to the tower: "Thank you for 12 and a half years of cooperation and friendship."

Icy steam rose from parking ramp as we were guided into position. A long, single-file row of Airmen rendered a solemn salute welcoming home Shell 01.

Earlier Seiler gave me the air refueling squadron's numbers over their 12 and a half years of upholding the mission in the skies over Afghanistan: "33,500 sorties with 135,000 aircraft refueled and1.8 billion pounds of fuel off loaded which equates to about 9,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools."

"Expensive," noted Bishop.

Seiler: "But what is one American life worth?"

Once again, tail number 57-1488 sat poised for its next mission on ramp steaming from the early afternoon sun. Maintenance rushed in to begin a quick turn on the aircraft to make its final departure from Kyrgyzstan later that afternoon.

Eventually, it will find its way back over the skies in Afghanistan, originating from other locations, while the rest of us will turn over the keys for the Transit Center at Manas and find our individual ways back home.