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Aerial port Airmen make own training opportunities

Staff Sgt. Erik Lucas (right) trains Tech. Sgt. Douglas Younts (left to right) and Senior Airmen Pablo Londono and Erick Combs on how to inspect an engine at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, on July 31. The Airmen are with the 727th Air Mobility Squadron. The squadron keeps and maintains spare C-5 Galaxy engines in case a visiting transport needs an engine swap. Each engine produces 43,000 pounds thrust, weighs 7,900 pounds and is nearly 27 feet long. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Staff Sgt. Erik Lucas (right) trains Tech. Sgt. Douglas Younts (left to right) and Senior Airmen Pablo Londono and Erick Combs on how to inspect an engine at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, on July 31. The Airmen are with the 727th Air Mobility Squadron. The squadron keeps and maintains spare C-5 Galaxy engines in case a visiting transport needs an engine swap. Each engine produces 43,000 pounds thrust, weighs 7,900 pounds and is nearly 27 feet long. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Tech. Sgt. T.J. Ozbun and (left to right) Senior Airman Erica Wells, Airman 1st Class Laura Gazda, Staff Sgt. Dan Scruton and Tech. Sgt. Raymond Sanchez work at the combined maintenance operations and air terminal operations center at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, on July 31. The crew controls the movement of missions, passengers, cargo, aircraft and maintenance for transient aircraft at Mildenhall. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Tech. Sgt. T.J. Ozbun and (left to right) Senior Airman Erica Wells, Airman 1st Class Laura Gazda, Staff Sgt. Dan Scruton and Tech. Sgt. Raymond Sanchez work at the combined maintenance operations and air terminal operations center at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, on July 31. The crew controls the movement of missions, passengers, cargo, aircraft and maintenance for transient aircraft at Mildenhall. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Staff Sgt. Erik Lucas checks components atop a C-5 Galaxy turbofan engine at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, on July 31. The sergeant is an engine manger with the 727th Air Mobility Squadron and responsible for the spare turbofan engine kept for the giant transport aircraft. Each engine produces 43,000 pounds thrust, weighs 7,900 pounds and is nearly 27 feet long. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Staff Sgt. Erik Lucas checks components atop a C-5 Galaxy turbofan engine at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, on July 31. The sergeant is an engine manger with the 727th Air Mobility Squadron and responsible for the spare turbofan engine kept for the giant transport aircraft. Each engine produces 43,000 pounds thrust, weighs 7,900 pounds and is nearly 27 feet long. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Staff Sgt. Erik Lucas and (left to clockwise) Tech. Sgt. Douglas Younts, Staff Sgt. Abbi Cabeen and others position a turbofan engine into a storage facility at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, on July 31. The 727th Air Mobility Squadron keeps and maintains spare C-5 Galaxy engines in case a visiting transport needs an engine swap. Each engine produces 43,000 pounds thrust, weighs 7,900 pounds and is nearly 27 feet long. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Staff Sgt. Erik Lucas and (left to clockwise) Tech. Sgt. Douglas Younts, Staff Sgt. Abbi Cabeen and others position a turbofan engine into a storage facility at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, on July 31. The 727th Air Mobility Squadron keeps and maintains spare C-5 Galaxy engines in case a visiting transport needs an engine swap. Each engine produces 43,000 pounds thrust, weighs 7,900 pounds and is nearly 27 feet long. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Staff Sgt. Abbi Cabeen drives a U-30 tow vehicle on the flightline at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, on July 31. The sergeant is with the 727th Air Mobility Squadron. The tow vehicle is capable of pulling a fully loaded C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft that can weigh more than 800,000 pounds. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Staff Sgt. Abbi Cabeen drives a U-30 tow vehicle on the flightline at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, on July 31. The sergeant is with the 727th Air Mobility Squadron. The tow vehicle is capable of pulling a fully loaded C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft that can weigh more than 800,000 pounds. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

ROYAL AIR FORCE MILDENHALL, England (AFPN) -- When the flow of aircraft in and out of this base slows, 727th Air Mobility Squadron troops find ways to keep their training current.

That means Airmen must mob the C-5 Galaxy or C-17 Globemaster III aircraft that do arrive -- or deploy to other bases in Europe and the Middle East to train.

"Our work is cyclical, it comes in waves," squadron director of operations Lt. Col. Tim Taylor said. "Some days you can look out on the line and not see any aircraft, like today."

But other times, the work pace can be frantic and all the aerial port troops must scramble to get the job done. The airflow into and out of this tanker base some 70 miles northeast of London many times depends on what is going on in the world, the colonel said.

For example, not long ago President George W. Bush made a quick stop at the base on his way to Washington from a surprise visit to Iraq. Squadron troops rushed to service and refuel the presidential aircraft, Air Force 1 and Air Force 2.

"That night, at two in the morning, when President Bush was getting back on the airplane, we were still fueling and providing fleet services," the colonel said. "It was pretty hectic since the president was only on the ground one hour and seven minutes."

It was the same when the 352nd Special Operations Group received short-notice orders to deploy some of its people and helicopters from Mildenhall to Larnaca, Cyprus. They went there to help fly out Americans who wanted to leave Lebanon. The aerial port troops helped the group deploy.

"We did a joint inspection of their cargo to ensure it was airworthy," the colonel from Richmond, Va., said. "Then we helped load them up and get them out of town."

At these times like, everyone forgets the sporadic air flow problems they have learned to deal with, he said.

But helping the special operations group was pretty much the extent of the squadron’s support to the mission. Within days, Air Force air traffic was flowing in and out of Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and Incirlik AB, Turkey.

The squadron went back to its daily routine. With some 150 Airmen and 80 British civilians, the unit loads and unloads people and cargo and provides command and control and maintenance support to Air Mobility Command aircraft moving to and from Europe and the Middle East. It also supports Mildenhall’s 100th Air Refueling Wing, the special operations group, 95th Reconnaissance Squadron and 48th Intelligence Squadron.

Most weeks, that means handling about 30 aircraft and up to 400 passengers and 300,000 pounds of cargo. They also service the air refueling wing’s aircraft. These are not figures to scoff at. But they are not the numbers the squadron needs to keep its Airmen qualified in their specialties.

"The biggest challenge for us is to keep training at an all-time high, which is difficult when you don’t have the aircraft to work with," said squadron air terminal manager Senior Master Sgt. Bryan Colbert.

The sergeant from Boston helps manage the squadron’s aerial port operations. That includes air terminal operations and passenger, air freight and fleet management services. He said the squadron jumps on any opportunity to keep Airmen trained and job qualified.

But one problem -- that is also a boon -- is the number of its civilian workers. There are more civilians working in the squadron than at other such unit in Europe. They provide much-needed stability, continuity and a knowledge data base for unit operations, the sergeant said.

"We are fortunate to have such highly skilled workers," he said. Some of the workers have been with the unit more than 25 years.

However, the civilian do much of the work, like loading and unloading cargo, which includes driving the unit’s heavy lift loaders that can handle 60,000 pound of cargo.

"At Ramstein, Airmen are driving these loaders all over the place," Sergeant Colbert said. "They keep proficient."

To keep its Airmen skilled, the squadron is going through some changes. That is especially true of its maintenance troops, which the unit sends to work at sister units at Ramstein, Naval Air Station Rota, Spain, and Spangdahlem AB, Germany.

"We send folks there so they can stay qualified," said Tech. Sgt. Tom Shultz, the assistant NCO in charge of maintenance support.

The training the Airmen get elsewhere -- mostly working on the giant C-5 transports -- helps make sure they can do their Mildenhall mission. The troops deploy so they can stay up to date on how to jack up the aircraft and performing engine runs.

"So when time to qualify comes, we have to send people to other bases for the experience -- unless we have aircraft on the ground here," the sergeant from Port St. Lucie, Fla., said.

And when an aircraft does break at the base, Airmen swarm over it like ants, getting all the training they can in any of the skills then need qualification. Even Airmen on their days off join the mob, Sergeant Shultz said.

"If an airplane comes in and we have to jack it up, everyone comes in and gets to run the gear and get their qualification," he said. "The same thing is true when we have to do C-5 engine runs and changes."

But the unit cannot depend on aircraft breaking down or helping other units so its Airmen can get the training they need. So Sergeant Colbert said the Air Force is looking to put squadron members on air expeditionary force rotations. He said the unit can handle the deployments.

The unit already has a few Airmen deployed to the Middle East, he said. Four others, from his section, are preparing for a four-month tour to Afghanistan. This will be just one more way the unit takes advantage “of every interesting opportunity to make sure cargo is moving,” he said.

Deploying troops so they can remain qualified to do their jobs may seem a bit far-fetched. But Colonel Taylor said that is the only thing the unit can do right now to keep its Airmen trained.

"There are all kinds of challenges here," the colonel said. "But we have some motivated people. They will make sure we get the job done."

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