***image3***Stepping out of the belly of a C-130 Hercules aircraft onto a sparse and windy tarmac, 130 Airmen met the green-spotted hills of Kigali, Rwanda, for an operation that had an unknown end-date.
The mission: transporting African Union troops to the troubled region of Darfur, Sudan, where to date, rebels have displaced more than 1.5 million people from their homes and killed at least 70,000, according to 1st Lt. Beverly Mock, European Command public affairs officer.
***image2***The Airmen: active-duty from Ramstein and Sembach, Royal Air Forces Mildenhall, England, and Reservists from Alabama, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin trained in a kaleidoscope of functions from maintenance to logistics to security.
The aircraft: C-130E and H model Hercules, chosen because it is the workhorse of the Air Force, said Lt. Col J.R. Reid, 322nd Operations Group commander. “We’re flying two missions daily on unimproved runways with max loads of 155,000 pounds,” he said. “These aircraft were made for this type of airlift,” he said.
The group was assigned the 322nd Air Expeditionary Group descriptor, and the mission was designated Operation Silverback Express for the silverback gorillas that live in the jungles of Rwanda on the Congo border, two degrees south of the equator, said Col. Robert Baine, 322nd AEG commander deployed from 3rd Air Force at RAF Mildenhall.
This self-sustaining group set up operations in less than two days.
“We did a site survey over the phone with the U.S. Embassy here to see what was available because visiting ahead of time wasn’t an option,” said 1st Lt. Robert Magee, 322nd AEG logistics officer deployed from 3rd AF. With requirements for custom clearances, transportation, lodging and food for nearly 130, “we had to have a light, lean and force module concept to open a base of operations,” he said. The biggest hotel in the area had 105 rooms and met all the billeting and command operations requirements as well as the health requirements.
***image1***“According to Air Force instructions, we checked everything about the water and food, including how it’s grown, the training and hygiene of the staff and how it’s cooked,” said Dr. (Maj.) Ron Allen, 322nd AEG flight surgeon. “The chef was a five-star, fine cuisine executive chef so everything including the fruits and vegetables was excellent.”
So, meetings were held by the stone-sided swimming pool in the cabana called “The Banana Jam Café” with wicker tables and chairs splattered amidst palm trees and overflowing tropical gardens, and communications were set up in the penthouse suite with a rooftop view of downtown and a bird’s eye view of the path for incoming aircraft at Kigali International Airport.
“We basically took over the roof: sticking wires in windows, attaching cords to walls,” said Senior Airmen James Danks, 322nd AEG communications deployed from 1st Combat Communications Squadron at Ramstein. “First thing was to set up the command and control phone to talk to the aircraft commanders.”
Airman Danks, along with his team from 1st CBCS, littered the balcony with thick, black boxes of all sizes for satellite communications, data and voice telecommunications, secure video conferencing as well as secure and nonsecure internet links – in a third world country where cell phones and internet required the correct position on the clouds.
“Peak sun times that close to the equator garble connections due to sun spots on the satellite, so cloud cover actually helped us because the satellite could bounce the signal better,” said Master Sgt. Kelly Burkhard, 322nd AEG information manager deployed from 3rd AF.
Communications flow ran from the penthouse to the aircraft to the flight line where the security forces detail set up a mobile command post that was operated 24 hours a day and where the maintenance personnel could let leadership know when things were happening.
In 38 sorties, there was only one major incident.
“The leak in the second ship of the first sortie out of Rwanda was a problem because we had diplomatic clearance for only a short time,” said Maj. Paul Howard, 322nd AEG operations planner deployed from 86th Operations Group at Ramstein.
With 45 minutes to spare, maintenance crews fixed the leak.
The mission concluded after 14 days and in that time, the 322nd AEG flew 240 African Union troops from Rwanda and Nigeria and more than 150,000 pounds of supplies into Darfur on 38 sorties with a 100 percent capability rating.
“We were really working a lot of hours, long days but you could really see things happen, you could really see the results of what you were doing,” said Master Sgt. Fred Hill, 322nd AEG crew chief deployed from 911th Air Reserve Wing in Pittsburgh, Penn.