LAJES FIELD, Portugal — Wheels go up as aircraft emerge into the blue sky over the choppy Atlantic abyss. Lajes Field, Azores, Portugal, is a critical piece of the 86th Airlift Wing mission to provide airlift capabilities around the globe.
“There are only a few islands that actually exist in the middle of the Atlantic,” said Col. Dan Furleigh, 65th Air Base Group commander. “It is almost halfway between the continental United States and Europe, and this is the only one that has a 10,800 ft. runway that we land airplanes on, and have for nearly 70 years.”
Six hours away from its parent wing at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, the unit is home to nearly 600 Airmen including local nationals. With its long history, heritage is rich within the small community of the Island. One of the pieces to that foundation is the partnership that holds the mission together.
“Without our partnership with the Portuguese, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish the mission,” Furleigh said. “The opportunities to work side-by-side with them are few but are extremely important. They run a 24/7 airfield that we have access to and assist in managing to ensure we are flowing traffic to and from areas that are strategically important.”
The 65th Air Base Group enables expeditionary movement of warfighters, warplanes and global communications to combatant commanders. They also support joint coalition and NATO operations to promote partnerships.
The location of this base is not the only thing that makes this assignment special, said Furleigh.
“This is so unique because it’s such a small community,” Furleigh said. “All of our Airmen here are on 12-month unaccompanied assignments. The small community and size of the force put a huge emphasis on teamwork here. You typically have Airmen that are coming into jobs at a lower level or grade than what they would normally find at a larger installation. … They have leadership opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t see.”
The small size of the force at Lajes does not stop Airmen from fulfilling all of the duties required to provide a platform for airpower.
“It’s a different challenge every day because there are so few people. … There’s a lot of wearing different hats,” said Senior Airman Ryan Matthews, 65th Operations Support Squadron radar maintenance journeyman. “That isn’t necessarily all bad because the operations tempo is still maintainable. However, it is interesting when someone (is working one job on one day, and a different job the next).”
The strategic location of Lajes plays a huge role in flight success over the Atlantic, said Matthews.
“We have to be ready here and open to meet any needs over the Atlantic,” Matthews said. “I think our mission really shines through. For example, during an in-flight emergency, if someone flies over the Atlantic, half-way across the ocean and something goes wrong. A few months ago an aircraft had some trouble. Had they not been able to land at Lajes, they might have coasted into the ocean.”
Whether it’s the relationship Airmen build with the Portuguese, the emergency services it provides to aircraft across the Atlantic, or flowing aircraft to and from crucial missions, Lajes remains a vital cog in the 86th Airlift Wing mission.