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Airmen keep Soto Cano’s runway running

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Staff Sgt. Karal Schofield (left) and Tech Sgt. Michael McCarthy, transient alert technicians, check a KC-10 Extender from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C.  The huge tanker flies the weekly flight from Charleston, which brings in new Airmen here.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Staff Sgt. Karal Schofield (left) and Tech Sgt. Michael McCarthy, transient alert technicians, check a KC-10 Extender from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C. The huge tanker flies the weekly flight from Charleston, which brings in new Airmen here. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Staff Sgt. Michelle Cox processes a line badge for Tech Sgt. Marc Henry (right).  Sergeant Henry, a reservist on a 120-day deployment to the base, is replacing Staff Sgt. Charles Wilson (center) at Joint Task Force-Bravo.  Sergeant Cox is the airfield management training chief here.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Staff Sgt. Michelle Cox processes a line badge for Tech Sgt. Marc Henry (right). Sergeant Henry, a reservist on a 120-day deployment to the base, is replacing Staff Sgt. Charles Wilson (center) at Joint Task Force-Bravo. Sergeant Cox is the airfield management training chief here. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Staff Sgt. Dennis Kraffert gives an aircraft landing instructions.  All air traffic controllers at the base must be bilingual since the task force shares the base with the Honduran air force.  Sergeant Kraffert is an air traffic controller with Joint Task Force-Bravo.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Staff Sgt. Dennis Kraffert gives an aircraft landing instructions. All air traffic controllers at the base must be bilingual since the task force shares the base with the Honduran air force. Sergeant Kraffert is an air traffic controller with Joint Task Force-Bravo. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Staff Sgt. Charles Heairet checks radar equipment here.  He and other technicians maintain and repair all meteorological and navigational systems to ensure the base runway stays open for Joint Task Force-Bravo counterdrug and humanitarian support operations.  Sergeant Heairet is a meteorological and navigational aid systems technician.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Staff Sgt. Charles Heairet checks radar equipment here. He and other technicians maintain and repair all meteorological and navigational systems to ensure the base runway stays open for Joint Task Force-Bravo counterdrug and humanitarian support operations. Sergeant Heairet is a meteorological and navigational aid systems technician. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Staff Sgt. Amber Charlesworth checks the ground control approach radar for incoming traffic here.  During the dry season in Honduras, there is plenty of activity at the base, home of Joint Task Force-Bravo, which conducts counterdrug and humanitarian support operations.  Sergeant Charlesworth is an air traffic control watch supervisor.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Staff Sgt. Amber Charlesworth checks the ground control approach radar for incoming traffic here. During the dry season in Honduras, there is plenty of activity at the base, home of Joint Task Force-Bravo, which conducts counterdrug and humanitarian support operations. Sergeant Charlesworth is an air traffic control watch supervisor. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Staff Sgts. Joshua Smith (left) and James Brown check the five-day forecast for here and Central America.  The Airmen are weather forecasters with Joint Task Force-Bravo and are some of the Airmen responsible for keeping the base runway open for counterdrug and humanitarian support operations.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Staff Sgts. Joshua Smith (left) and James Brown check the five-day forecast for here and Central America. The Airmen are weather forecasters with Joint Task Force-Bravo and are some of the Airmen responsible for keeping the base runway open for counterdrug and humanitarian support operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Staff Sgt. Michelle Cox said she hates it when a plan falls apart because when that happens, it can easily end a vital mission. And at this small base in the heart of Central America, all missions are important.

Missions can fail because people lack training. Sergeant Cox said that bothers her since she is chief of airfield management training based here 50 miles northwest of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. For the moment, training is her life.

“It’s clear what happens when people don’t know what they’re doing,” Sergeant Cox said. “It causes a domino effect. If we don’t do our job, other sections are affected, and they can’t do their jobs.”

That would be a bad thing for her and the other members of the 612th Air Base Squadron. It is their job to maintain, operate and keep open the largest runway in Honduras. From there, the Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines of Joint Task Force-Bravo carry out counterdrug and humanitarian support missions and maintain a forward U.S. presence in the region, officials said.

It takes about 250 Airmen to support this key U.S. Southern Command base. Some are on a one-year tour, and others arrived on a 120-day deployment. They come from career fields such as base operations, weather, airfield management, flight plans, air traffic and radar control, firefighting and several kinds of maintenance.

But all focus on one thing: keeping the nearly 9,000-foot runway open. That is how they fight the war on drugs and how they help the needy.

“Everything that goes on in this region takes off from this base,” said Staff Sgt. Charlie Heairet, a meteorological and navigational aid systems technician. “If they couldn’t take off and land from here, they wouldn’t be able to train or get their jobs done.”

The base is busiest during the dry season, which lasts from November through April. Everyone wants to train then, and the Airmen handle more than a couple of aircraft a week.

Aircraft and people -- from the military and U.S. and Honduran government agencies -- arrive for counter-drug, search and rescue and other training. It is also when SOUTHCOM officials hold the annual New Horizons humanitarian aid and country building training exercises. And each Tuesday, a flight arrives from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., to bring in new people and take away those who have finished their Soto Cano tour.

Soto Cano’s flightline Airmen are ready to support all these missions, said Lt. Col. Jim Hetherington, the squadron commander and commander of Air Force forces assigned to the task force. Plus, they must continue supporting the Army’s major unit at the base, the 1st Battalion and its CH-47 Chinook and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. The Army helicopters bear the burden of getting people to and from operation and humanitarian areas.

“Everyone relies on us to keep the airfield open to support their flying operations,” Colonel Hetherington said. “So that’s what we do.”

Each Airman plays a key role in accomplishing that mission. And each also believes his or her role is the most important. They are all right, the colonel said.

For example, without Staff Sgt. James Brown’s weather information, aircraft can easily fly into some very hazardous conditions. Flying low is how counterdrug teams stay as stealthy as possible.

“With the terrain and tropical weather conditions here, it’s difficult for aircraft to fly low, which is what (the teams) must do when flying through the mountains,” said Sergeant Brown, the weather operations chief. “When they fly low, we have to give them a lot of turbulence forecasts.”

And without bilingual air traffic controllers, flying in the Spanish-speaking region would be difficult, said Master Sgt. Rudy Silva, the squadron’s chief controller who is in charge of about 50 Airmen in different jobs that keep the runway open.

Sergeant Silva said there are Honduran and American controllers in the base control tower. That can cause some difficulties at times.

“They’re speaking Spanish, and we’re speaking English,” the sergeant said. “We have one frequency, but the same airspace. So when we have several aircraft in the pattern, we have pilots speaking in Spanish and in English.”

Clear communications are vital, he said.

But that is the way of life in the gateway to Central America, Sergeant Silva said. And his troops must get used to it fast. Because, he said, “everything starts here and then it fans out throughout the region.” And the missions cannot wait.

Col. Rick Bassett, the Joint Task Force-Bravo commander, said the work the Airmen do is vital to the task force’s mission. And without their contributions, SOUTHCOM would lose its first response capabilities during humanitarian disasters like hurricanes.

“Without these (Airmen), we wouldn’t exist,” Colonel Bassett said.

With the arrival of the rainy season, Sergeant Cox has picked up the training pace. The nearly empty flightline gives the Airmen a chance to catch up on training and to learn new things and to stay ready.

“I want to make sure all the people who need it get the training they need to get their jobs done,” she said. “That will keep me busy.”

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