Talk:486th Air Expeditionary Wing
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Code One magazine, 2004
Maj. Gen. Nick Williams, the 21st Air Force commander and Director of Mobility Forces, called me in late January 2003. He was looking for a one-star with a significant background in C-130 tactical operations and who was willing to deploy to command the 486th Air Expeditionary Wing that was being stood up. It took me about fifteen or twenty minutes to realize he wasn't talking in general, but was talking directly to me.
Going in, the basing situation was unclear. There was a lot of turmoil. We stood up at this location as a bare base. It was an existing field and was used by coalition forces, but there was no base or infrastructure and no agreements to have US forces there. We put together an ADVON package, but we had no approvals. On February 27, we were allowed to pick the command element for the new wing. We were in a little bit of a vacuum when we got to the location in theater two days later. What if we brought twenty C-130s in here? We knew we would have to bed them down. It had enough space and a runway, but there was no water, power, sewer, or electricity. We were going to be required to bring that all in.
We started with thirty-nine people, mainly refuelers. There was an emphasis on maintenance and things associated with flying. We wanted as many C-130s in theater as quickly as possible, as we didn't know when offensive operations were going to start. To start, it was almost all teeth and no tail. We had no CE, no Security Forces either, until three weeks later. We had 400 people there within a week, all the C-130s, some maintenance guys, and some refuelers. Food was trucked in daily and water was trucked in weekly. We had 1,500 people and 100 tents within a month. We flew the day after the aircraft arrived and never stopped flying until the time they shut the base down in August.
We ended up with twenty-one aircraft. All the aircrew members were NVG-qualified, and most of the aircraft were fully equipped. And we only had half the required maintenance for the first six weeks.
We were tasked at a ninety to ninety-five percent utilization rate. Missions were fourteen or fifteen hours on average. We had a launch reliability rate of 100 percent—we never missed a sortie. That speaks more than words can describe the patriotism of our airmen. They worked 24/7 and did what it took to get those aircraft airborne.
As soon as C-130s went into the box, we flew—Talil and further north, then into Baghdad. We were supposed to be the second aircraft into Baghdad, but when we got there, there was no evidence that the other aircraft had been there, so our aircraft were in first.
The coalition forces helped us—some gave us a few beds, some had extra food, some had extra communications gear, etc. We had one cell phone to start with. Then we had six cell phones, and then another twenty. If you had one of the six original cell phones, you were somebody. We had to go every day to another base to get on the classified network to get our tasking, file situation reports, etc. It was a case of airmen helping airmen—they had work to do as well. The cooperation was just exceptional.
A Wall Street Journal article discussed how the US was frantically building an airbase for fighters. Everything was accurate except that it wasn't being built for fighters. Things started getting a little better after that.
The first thirty-nine airmen who came in were unarmed, uninitiated, and, quite frankly, uninformed. Most of the stories they had heard beforehand came true. They had a positive attitude and energy throughout the fighting. We had almost zero discipline, physical, or psychological problems. The Canadians had said they would not participate in offensive operations, but the local unit there was more than willing to help with base defense.
We were fifty percent active duty, thirty percent Guard, and twenty percent Reserve—it was truly a representation of the Total Force. The coalition forces had no problem reporting to a Guard general. Our presence was twice the size of that of the coalition forces.
The job the maintenance guys did was incredible. We would have an aircraft come back with a shelled turbine and it was ready to go the next morning. There was no downtime for those guys.
We flew into Baghdad the first night it was open. The result of the work of the combat air forces was obvious. We could see the flames and smell the fires. Through the NVGs, we could see a firefight on the civilian side of the airport. Before we departed, we had reports of tracer rounds at the end of the runway. That really made it up close and personal for me. The first day, we had one day and two night sorties. Everybody on the base went out to the runway to watch them depart and when they got back. Baghdad opening was the crown jewel, particularly for us lifters.
The spirit of the airmen is what I'll most remember. They carried such a positive attitude from the beginning, and they had no reason to have a good attitude. Everybody bought into the idea we would make the base better every day. Out of that spirit came the result—a 100 percent launch rate in a war with old aircraft.
— Brig. Gen. John Iffland