Kosovo revisited: Aviano a launching pad for NATO air strikes
March 23, 2009
AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — The number of Air Force personnel stationed at Aviano has shrunk in recent years due to the service’s push to trim its ranks.
But 10 years ago, the numbers were going in the opposite direction as Aviano became the service’s main hub for Operation Allied Force, with American and NATO personnel crammed into every available space.
"Aviano was an incredibly busy place," said retired Lt. Gen. Daniel Leaf, the base commander at the time. Leaf said the number of planes flying from the base more than tripled during that span, topping 200. And the number of personnel more than quadrupled.
Not only were more Air Force aircraft brought in, but the U.S. Marines also came with their EA-6B Prowlers. NATO allies such as Canada, Spain, Portugal and the United Kingdom brought in forces and aircraft.
Senior Master Sgt. David VanVlack was a staff sergeant on base at the time. He said he remembers jets parked nose to tail along most of the runway.
"The parking was very intense," he said.
As were the level of operations.
Jets took off the first night of the attack and operations continued around the clock for the next two months.
Roberto Restivo, a civilian liaison officer with the local Office of Special Investigations detachment, was a technical sergeant at the time. He was born and reared in Aviano, and said he remembers some complaints from the locals about the noise level. Some Americans had their car tires slashed during the campaign. But most Italians appeared to support the operation.
"Because it was so short, it didn’t really impact the community all that much," he said.
In fact, the campaign was entertainment for many Italians. Italian TV crews set up their cameras on the other side of the fence from where the jets took off and aired reports the opening night. Crowds of onlookers followed, especially at night. Restivo, one of those designated to coordinate with Italian law enforcement agencies, said their crowd estimates topped 10,000 on some nights. That’s until authorities decided it was a good idea to close down the street and limit access.
VanVlack said he recalls sitting in a parking lot after work with his wife one night and watching the continual launch of planes. He realized after his wife’s awed reaction that it was the first time that most family members had been so close to such an operation.
"It was awesome," VanVlack admitted.
Leaf said he will always be proud of the efforts of the pilots and crews that managed to maintain such a pace for 78 days. But he said the cooperation of Italian communities was essential. As was the work done by hundreds of servicemembers and civilians who weren’t part of the crews.
For instance, a contingent from Ramstein Air Base in Germany set up a tent city — designed to house 2,000 people — in less than 72 hours.
"I can talk hours and hours about the people at Aviano who didn’t fly combat, who made all it possible," Leaf said.