K…Y…R….wait what? Where is this place? Eastern Europe, Western Asia…no? Oh, near the Middle East…sorta. Yeah, guess the “Stan” part gave that away. Kyrgyzstan is a country nestled between some of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world, often compared to the majestic Rockies. And in the northern part of Kyrgyzstan lies a small airport with a large mission. The Transit Center at Manas. But my story doesn’t start there, it starts on the other side of the world on a crowded BART train leaving San Francisco.
Four days earlier, I had finally gotten an email from the 92nd ARW Public Affairs office at Fairchild AFB, WA confirming that our mission to Transit Center at Manas was officially a go! For the past 6 months, I had been in monthly back and forth with Colonels, Chiefs, Captains, Lieutenants, and several others from 4 different bases who were all rallying to get me out to witness first hand the important mission that was going on at Manas. But when Sequestration hit, the mission was in jeopardy. But luckily for me, I had some really dedicated folks who wanted this story told.
So in four days, I bought an expensive last minute airline ticket to Spokane, not knowing when we were taking off or when I was coming back home, just the rough dates, packed for Asia in December and the cold winter of flying aboard a KC-135 and rolled my luggage onto a crowded train to the airport. Little did I know, that would be nothing compared to being in the confined spaces of a KC-135.
A full flight to Spokane seemed to be my fate to start me on this holiday journey. Kids crying, families trying to get home to loved ones or kids traveling home for the winter break. And not an empty seat in sight. A luxury that one takes for granted as I can now reflect.
Due to OpSec (Operational Security), the USAF could not tell me when exactly my flight would be departing the previous week, but finally 24 hours in advance, I had a schedule.
1030 – Be in place at Visitor’s Center for escort onto base
1100 – Bag Drop near Flight Ops
1130 – Mission Brief
1200 – Lunch at Dining Facility
1300 – Flight Showtime
No return time yet or any idea what I would be doing in Kyrgyzstan, but this was all a part of the adventure. So after a restless night sleep, I loaded up my gear and headed to the Visitor Center at Fairchild AFB. I had my medium sized bag with all my clothes. My well travelled Camera Bag with 50lbs of gear, a gym bag with my in flight essentials (aka hours of tv shows, movies, noise canceling headphones, sweaters, hand warmers, knit hat, wool sweater, and food), a sleeping bag and mattress pad. The last two would make or break the mission.
It was at the Visitor Center that I met the other two media folks that I would be traveling with to Manas. Whitney is a television reporter for a local news station who was doing a story on “Treats for Troops” and Young is a great photojournalist for a local Spokane rag. I also met our PA Escorts that would be my shadow for the next 8 days. Guess my reputation preceded me. 🙂
With three hours to go, I was starting to get excited. But unlike a traditional commercial flight, we had to do a lot of the stuff you take for granted on our own. Like load our own luggage. So we grabbed all our gear and loaded up whatever we were not going to need access to during the flight onto a wooden pallet. This pallet would be right there with us on the plane. Not underneath, but right there.
Mission Brief time! Our mission was to ferry an replacement KC-135 to Manas along with a fresh set of Airmen who will replace a group returning home in a week. The KC-135s out of Manas support 30% of all aerial refueling over Afghanistan and the crews from Fairchild fly those missions.
Yup! It was going to be COLD! Good thing I had my warm sleeping bag. But this is an ambitious plan. Fly, land, quickly refuel in Mildenhall, and then take off to make it to Manas. But that’s for the crews to worry about. Time to grab our last meals in America. Luckily for me, I had a friend stop by to say hi during lunch. Thanks Opie!
Then it was off to the Pax Lounge (aka a room with a table) and for some hurry up and wait. Apparently the aircraft’s weight and balance was off, so there was a delay while they recalculated. Guess I shouldn’t have packed that extra snuggie. And finally our chariot to the plane arrived. One thing that the USAF does like a commercial flight is a passenger briefing. You know, in case of emergency, little yellow masks fall down and provide oxygen. Well, in our case, it’s slightly different. There is no ceiling with masks, so there is a bag with a little O2 bottle that we carry with us on the flight.
Traveling on a KC-135 isn’t like anything you can imagine. Yet, thousands of troops all across the globe are expected to fly long hours to remote parts of the globe in these conditions. The plane is a 50+ year old relic that has been reinvented time and time again to accomplish its mission. Refuel aircraft in mid air and deliver cargo. I was the cargo and as such would be treated like so.
The belly of the plane, like those you fly commercially, normally is used for carrying bags and cargo. But in the KC-135, it has been filled with extra fuel bladders, so the cargo has to go on top where the seats would normally be. But since you put cargo where the seats go, to make room, they took the seats out. Well, not completely. They have this nylon webbing for you to sit in. Did I mention it’s a 12 hour flight? Imagine sitting in those folding chairs that you take to the park for 12 hours. Then put those chairs in a large refrigerator that is 40 degrees F and has no insulation and a loud continuous droning sound from 4 jet engines outside. Yup. That’s what I am jumping onboard. A flying gas station that is freezing, loud, has no real chairs, and one bathroom. A full flight on Southwest was looking really good about now.
Now you know why I brought a mattress pad, warm sleeping bag and all those things to keep me warm. But as soon as we were airborne, sleeping pills were popped and people started to get comfortable as best as they could.
Sleeping was not as easy as I thought it would be. Between the cold, a bumpy flight, and uncomfortable metal box I was laying on (my air mattress sprung a leak), I only managed a couple hours at best. So I had a snack from my bag (there is no beverage or meal service on this flight) and headed up to the cockpit. The crew up front was in the same situation as we were in the back, but welcomed the company.
Being a pilot, I was fascinated how they navigated the route to the United Kingdom. I knew the concept, but this was my first time seeing it in practice and have it explained. The 50 year old plane even has text messaging! Well, sorta. The pilots can send secure message back to AMC HQ for flight guidance and not have to use any voice connections. I thought that was very cool and a clear way to avoid confusion.
But up there I found out that the weather at RAF Mildenhall was not looking good. The Runway Visibility that we needed was just below the minimums to land safely. AMC HQ originally had us diverting to Shannon Airport in Ireland.
The problem with that is that we only had 3 hours on the ground to get refueled, serviced, and back in the air to make it to Manas before our two aircrews hit their maximum flying hours. The original plan had us at 23.8 hours, and that was assuming all went perfectly as planned. Well, time to adapt to get the mission done. So while RAF Mildenhall was fogged in, RAF Lakenheath was just barely visible, but good enough to land and only 9 miles away! Much better then flying an hour North West to Shannon.
The Crew made their decision with the Aircraft Commander and we got vectors to RAF Lakenheath. We actually had a chance to make our 3 hour window!
RVR looking good!!!
Touchdown!!! RAF Lakenheath is predominantly an F-15 base with a SAR wing. Basically small aircraft. So when a heavy KC-135 popped up, unannounced, it came as a giant surprise to the base. Opps.
This would prove to be our downfall. And we were oh so close! The transient ramp for large aircraft is not directly accessible after exiting the runway, so we had to taxi at 10 mph all the way around the airport and cross back over the runway. But since our heavy KC-135 ran over the emergency arresting cables for the F-15s, we had to hold short Runway 11 /29 while Ops did a runway inspection….25 minutes down 2:35 left till we are stuck here.
Eventually we got to our parking spot V1.
So what do you mean you can’t operate the air stairs? How are we going to get down and off this plane? Remember, they aren’t used to large aircraft just randomly landing here. Tick tock, tick tock.
Eventually they found a maintenance stand that we climbed down. Grab some cash, a quick run to grab some food and use the restroom while the plane gets refueled and we could still pull this off… 1:45 left.
And this is where the universe decided that I should spend the night in the United Kingdom. Remember how I said that this base is used to small fighter jets? Well, the fuel trucks are small too. And we needed a lot of fuel to get to Manas. So they couldn’t get a fuel truck large enough for us. Either use two or three small fuel trucks or drive one over from RAF Mildenhall. Once they decided on the small fuel truck option, it was missing some safety gear. That was eventually found. Then an F-15 had an emergency landing and shut down all movement on the airport, including refueling. Time had run out. Time to grab our overnight bags and find a room. Wait, what overnight bag? $h!%
So since the base was unaccustomed to such a large group dropping in, the 5 of us Media/PA folks got rooms on base and the rest of the aircrew and pax had to go to some small town 30 min away. We decided to make the most of our predicament and check out the sights. A quick shower, and it was off for a bite at The Bull Inn, Barton Mills where I got to toast and pour a traditional English pint.
But our adventures were only starting and it was a $200 cab ride to Cambridge! I got to see the RAF Bar and the place where the discovery of DNA was announced. Oh and so many bikes!!!
Then it was time to go back to the Base. Show time was 0330 GMT where we had to meet back in the lobby with all of our stuff for a 0630 take off. And since it was early morning back in California, I figured I’d just stay awake all night and sleep on the plane. But it was a really really long spell till 0330. Then it was back on the bus to get our secrets, then our guns, and then finally get on the plane up those shaky air stairs.
Then it was back to hustling for a spot to pass out.
I slept for an hour or so and then wandered up to the cockpit in time to see the sunrise over Europe. Gotta say, it was very pretty. The pilots did their job and kept the pointy part of the plane heading East.
After a bit, I was able to pass out for a decent amount of sleep. Guess the body eventually gets tired and just passes out no matter how uncomfortable or cold it is.
After 7.2 hours of flying, I was woken up and told we were approaching Transit Center at Manas. It was Thursday, 9pm local time in Bishkek, 3pm in the UK, and 7am in California. I had left Spokane on a Tuesday at 1pm, and have been traveling for XX hours. But I was here. And it was amazing!
While there were no airstairs to help us deplane, we just came down the ladder in the nose of the aircraft. Everyone jumped in to offload the carry on bags. Amongst the chaos of all the people swarming, one thing surprised me. I was handing bags down the human line and a Full Bird Colonel was there grabbing bags and helping out.
I later found out that this was one of the command staff. He wasn’t there for some dog and pony show or just to be seen, he was there to lend a hand, greet his new crews and help welcome them to their new home away from home for the next few months. This was going to be a good trip.