Volcanic ash grounds some military flights, diverts others


Read the latest AP story on the volcano-related travel problems here.

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Hovering debris from an Icelandic volcano kept U.S. military flights in Europe on the ground for a second-straight day Friday, slowing troop and supply transport to the war zones and diverting some medical evacuation flights.

Ramstein Air Base in Germany, normally the busiest military hub on the continent, had recently boosted flights into and out of Afghanistan as part of President Barack Obama’s order for 30,000 additional troops there.

Flights headed downrange, needing to cross the Atlantic Ocean from the States, are “at a halt,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Jim Dryjanski, 86th Operations Group deputy commander at Ramstein.

For aircraft moving between Europe and Afghanistan, a southern route through Spain and the Mediterranean is still open, he said.

Naval Station Rota and Moron Air Base in Spain are seeing about twice the flights they normally do, according to Navy Lt. Ben Tisdale.

All flights and heavy-lift aircraft operations into and out of Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, have also been postponed due to the volcanic ash, said base spokeswoman Air Force 2nd Lt. Kathleen Polesnak.

About half the additional airlift missions tied to the buildup in Afghanistan were to route through Ramstein and Spangdahlem, Air Force officials announced earlier this year.

European aviation officials said that, since the ash cloud was moving slowly, all civilian flights are expected to be disrupted at least through Saturday. Air Force officials said they would be monitoring the situation, and altering routes depending where the ash cloud moves.

All medical flights headed to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany had ceased as well, said Navy Cmdr. Glen Crawford, officer-in-charge of Landstuhl’s Deployed Warrior Medical Management Center. The hospital is normally the first stop for American troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the ash cloud means such flights will be diverted to the U.S.

So far, one medical evacuation flight from downrange has been re-routed directly to Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, said Navy Capt. Kevin Aandahl, a spokesman for U.S. Transportation Command.

Upon landing, the patients were to be taken directly to Walter Reed Army Medical Center or the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

“The patients will continue to get the same level of care,” Crawford said. “The only difference is the patients who have to be moved out of theater will have a longer flight.”

A flight set to bring patients from Landstuhl to the States on Friday was canceled.

The two main U.S. military bases in England, RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall, also were at a standstill.

Lt. Col. David Iverson, deputy chief of the 48th Operations Group at Lakenheath, said the base’s fleet of F-15s were all inside protective shelters. The move is precautionary, because there was no ash falling on the ground that might make its way into the jets’ engines.

The bases have aircraft participating in exercises in the Netherlands and Germany that have been put on hold. Both Brilliant Ardent and Frisian Flag are scheduled to run through Thursday and Air Force officials believe they’ll resume some time next week.

Troops who flew away from their homes in England to celebrate spring break with their children were looking at other modes of transportation to get back home, according to Claire Fadden, who works at the Sato travel office at Lakenheath.

“People have been stuck in various locations around Europe and are trying to take the train or other forms of transportation,” she said. “We’re trying to help as best we can.”

The passenger terminal at Ramstein was also open, though it, too, was nearly deserted Friday.

A few soldiers trying to get Afghanistan were optimistically signing up for military flights on Saturday.

“They’re hoping to get us out tomorrow but it looks kind of shaky,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Donald Edison, 44, who was headed to Kandahar after a weeks-long medical convalescence at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

Headed the opposite direction was Army 2nd Lt. Katie Ray, 24, a member of a North Dakota guard unit who was trying to get home to Ann Arbor, Mich., to see her family. Ray and more than a dozen fellow soldiers were stranded at Ramstein en route to the States from Kosovo.

“We were supposed to have two weeks of leave [before going back to Kosovo], but it keeps getting shorter,” she said.

Stars and Stripes reporters Geoff Ziezulewicz, Seth Robbins, Jeff Schogol, and Marcus Kloeckner contributed to this report.

Spc. Layton Kessler, 32, plays a handheld video game after he and his fellow Army National Guard soldiers were stranded Friday at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. The soldiers were en route from Kosovo to the States for two weeks of leave. Their flight was delayed by the closure of airspace over much of Germany and other European countries due to the volcanic ash cloud.

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