After 3 full days at the Transit Center at Manas, it was time to head back to Fairchild, Washington. And not just for me, but for a dozen Airmen that were stationed at TC Manas with the 22nd EARS supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. With just days before Christmas, this was the best present any of them could ask for.
As with each of my days at TC Manas, it was an early, early start. The past two days were spent flying on a KC-135 over Afghanistan, and now I was about to jump on yet another plane (my 4th one in 5 days) for a 30+ hour trip back to Fairchild AFB via RAF Mildenhall. Was I crazy? Yeah, probably. And truth be told, I was going to miss Manas.
I was even getting used to the dark ride to the 376 Ops Building in the early hours of the morning.
But this morning was just a little different. As if cold tears from the sky fell upon me, Kyrgyzstan decided to send me off in a blanket of white snow. No I was not a hero, but simple traveller trying to get home.
An as custom to the start of any USAF journey befitting a warrior such as myself, I was given the traditional plastic bag and allowed to make my own lunch in the DFac for the 10+ hour trip to the United Kingdom.
Then it was off to the flightline which was starting to get covered in snow.
With the temperature dropping and the snow piling up, our crews were moving quickly as they could to get us airborne else risk being stuck at Manas until more favorable weather conditions existed.
De-icing crews were already busy at work attacking the accumulation of white death on the plane.
Ice is the enemy. The buildup of ice on the surface of the wings would disrupt the flow of air over the surface of the wing.
This ice would adversely affect the lift the wings could produce and eventually cause the plane to fall out of the sky. Which is a bad thing. A very very bad thing.
But today, the crews won the fight against Mother Nature and we were cleared to depart.
As our plane was greeted upon arrival, the departing crew heading home was personally seen off by the Lt. Col in charge of the 376th AEW. With a firm handshake and the fondest wishes, he sent us off on our long journey home.
With a familiar rumble we slowly lumbered down the taxiway towards the runway. Pilot and Co reviewing the checklist and cross checking each other.
And then it was time to take to the skies.
And with a steady left turn towards the north and somewhere over Kazakhstan our time at Manas was over and we had 2989 nm till RAF Mildenhall. Not that anyone was counting.
As we flew eastward we settled into our seats. The ice was behind us and we started racing the sun. Somewhere over the Caspian Sea I looked out the window, saw the land kiss the sea and realized it was a losing battle and my body gave in to the boredom.
Like Groundhog Day, the monotonous drone of the engines, a cocktail of sleeping pills, and a muted effort to find a comfortable spot on the cold floor became routine. I shifted and tried to find comfort on a bed of steel. Eventually I settled between a thin sheet of metal and a pallet of cargo.
This was the non glamorous part of the job. The part no one makes movies about or idolizes. An uncomfortable seat, the sound of four jet engines, but hours of boredom.
Hours and several times tossing and turning later, we had arrived at RAF Mildenhall to a cold and wet ramp, much to the surprise of the local Customs folks.
I’ll spare you the narration of the three+ hour wait, but suffice it to say, showing up on a UK military base on a USAF aircraft as a US Citizen without any military travel orders causes a lot of confusion, even when the Aircraft Commander, entire air crew, and members of the USAF Public Affairs vouches for you. Hours were spent looking at two pick up trucks trying to jump start one another and other ways to entertain oneself after a 8+ hour flight and 3 more sitting in purgatory.
But the evening soon erased an afternoon of frustration with a friendly face and a cold pint of Guinness with new friends. In an unnecessary, but incredibly kind gesture unbeknownst to me, word of our journey from Manas to Mildenhall had arrived through the Chief’s network. And with a simple email asking one Command Chief from another to take care of me, events were set in motion. I was greeted upon arrival in Mildenhall by the Chief of the 352nd Special Operations Group with a hearty and firm handshake; a stranger who I had never met nor knew existed. But he had simply been asked to take good care of me from a mutual friend, and that was enough for him. Arrangements for housing for me and my media companions had already been made by the Chief, and dinner plans at the Bird in Hand pub with some more friends was set. Patches and coins were appropriated and a personal tour of the 352nd’s CV-22B Osprey as well. I was in a foreign country, far from home, but not alone thanks to the Chiefs.
The next day continued with the final leg of our journey home. 10.4 hours and we crossed the dateline back into the United States. Below the images speak for themselves. Loved ones gone for long and reunited at last. Girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, coworkers, friends, veterans, heroes.
A special thanks to the Men and Women of Transit Center at Manas, and Fairchild Air Force Base for a one in a lifetime trip. And a especially to Col. John C. Millard, Chief Master Sgt. Gregory Warren, Chief Master Sgt. William Markham, Chief Master Sgt. Paul Wallace, Chief Master Sgt. Steven Flax, and Chief Master Sgt. Luis Drummond. Oh and how can I forget the best PA crew ever: Lt Col Max Despain, 2nd Lt Rachelle Smith, TSgt Brian Bender, and SMSgt Angelique McDonald. 🙂