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Quiet RAF Fairford comes alive to handle war effort

Security forces stand guard on the first night of Iraqi Freedom operations from RAF Fairford, England, with a C-17 in the background.

COURTESY USAF

By RON JENSEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 13, 2003

RAF FAIRFORD, England — Nestled on the cusp of England’s lovely and rural Costwolds region, RAF Fairford is so serene and tranquil that people stationed at the base often refer to it as Sleepy Hollow.

But then a major military operation kicks off and the base becomes Grand Central Station. At rush hour.

So it was for Operation Iraqi Freedom, when the base, which is home to about 175 active-duty members, swelled to nearly 2,000. And the normally quiet runway rumbled with the sounds of more than a dozen B-52 Stratofortress bombers.

Tech. Sgt. Blake Meyer saw this once before, when the base geared up for Operation Allied Force in 1999, and he tried to prepare his colleagues.

“I said, ‘You know what? Before these 1,000 people get here, you better get over to the BX and buy what you want to buy, because it’s not going to be there in a week,’ ” he recalled telling them.

The mission of the 424th Air Base Squadron is to prepare for just such contingencies. Even when the base is empty and quiet, it is humming with preparations for the next operation.

“As the commander at Fairford, I’ve got one primary goal,” said Lt. Col. Max Rothman. “That’s to be ready anytime for a contingency. We’re sort of in that ‘get ready for war’ mode all the time.”

The base was built in World War II and launched Horsa gliders carrying men to the D-Day invasion of France. American bombers were stationed at the base until the mid-1960s, when it was returned to the Royal Air Force.

American tanker aircraft returned in 1979, but left in 1990 when the base was put on its current stand-by — or limited use — status. That was tested soon afterward during Operation Desert Storm and again in 1999 for NATO’s airstrikes against Yugoslavia. Bombers were stationed at the base for both operations.

Rothman said there was a sense of excitement when word came that RAF Fairford would again be put to the test.

“The coach is going to put us in the game,” he said.

As the Air Force identified the stateside units that would deploy to England in the battle with Saddam Hussein, the base began a dialogue with its expected guests.

“We talk to the units all the time,” said Master Sgt. Greg McKinney, superintendent of plans and programs. “We tell them what we have.”

RAF Fairford maintains a warehouse of equipment needed for air operations, from fuel trucks to bomb loaders to power units, about 600 pieces in all.

The visiting unit fills in any missing pieces or they are purchased. Meanwhile, the folks at Fairford began final plans for visitors. Beds and food are two major considerations, but putting together a plan is like shooting at a moving target.

“It was constantly building based on what the war needed,” said Staff Sgt. Xzabriel Lee, a logistic planner.

Finally, on March 4, 14 B-52s from the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., arrived. More than 900 people came with them.

To handle the protesters, the base welcomed 200 RAF police, 200 Royal Nepalese Ghurkas, 420 local police and 120 Ministry of Defence police. About 300 security forces from the Air Force also moved to the base.

Mike Hertlein, chief of services, said his people pulled the contingency dining facility out of mothballs. Eventually, 137,000 meals would be served.

The base’s normal contingency level of 650 beds was overloaded within hours.

“Overnight, our requirements for food and lodging jumped by hundreds,” said Senior Master Sgt. Vernon Griffith, superintendent of services.

Eventually, 100 Porta-Cabins arrived, providing bed space for 733 people. A hangar was filled with 300 beds. Any empty office or room became a bedroom.

“Counting the hangar, we had nearly 2,000 bed spaces to bed people down,” Hertlein said.

At the base exchange, they stocked up on pillows, blankets and alarm clocks. As a small facility at a limited-use base, the exchange doesn’t normally carry items such as razors, other than disposables, and shoes. They added both to the mix.

“There were times you couldn’t move on the floor because there were so many people,” she said. “It was really hard work, but it was an honor to do.”

As logistics flight commander, Capt. Graham Little had his hands full in the run-up to war, everything from fuels and munitions to transportation and spare parts were his responsibility.

“When did I know we were going to war? November of last year,” he said.

That’s when additional stores of munitions began arriving at RAF Welford, a munitions depot 35 miles away and under RAF Fairford control.

“They even arrived over Christmas weekend,” said Senior Master Sgt. Alan Starkey, munitions superintendent at RAF Welford.

When eight bombers left on the war’s first day, Rothman, filled with pride, watched them go.

“That also becomes a sobering moment when you realize what you’re sending out the door,” he said.

He said the base chaplain, Chap. (Maj.) William Toguchi, visited aircrews before launches and said a prayer with them.

During the war, the B-52s flying from RAF Fairford flew 122 combat sorties, a total of 1,600 flying hours in 33 days. They dropped 3.2 million pounds of munitions and 9 million leaflets.

During missions, the personnel from RAF Fairford felt a personal stake in the safety of the crews.

“They were like part of us when they got here,” said Staff Sgt. Sandra Parris, a communications operator.

Hertlein said, “I crossed my fingers that they came back. I’m also the mortuary chief. I didn’t want to put that hat on.”

But while events inside the fence kept the 424th hopping, so did events outside the wire. As the only base in northern Europe directly taking the fight to Iraq, RAF Fairford drew a large number of protesters and media members.

B-52 launches were seen live on worldwide television, increasing the profile of Sleepy Hollow. Many people heard from families in the States who said they saw the base on the daily news.

The protesters and their determination to disrupt the war effort proved an initial challenge.

“One of the lessons learned is that Fairford’s security in terms of fencing and technology had gotten old,” Rothman said.

The base added 36 miles of razor wire, a series of trip flares, closed-circuit television and infrared sensors to its perimeter.

The protesters, who numbered about 1,500 one day, did manage to make 80 cuts in the fences and 85 arrests were made.

When the war ended, the bombers returned to North Dakota and RAF Fairford returned to normal, a Sleepy Hollow beneath a broad English sky.

But there was little time to relax. The Royal International Air Tattoo, a massive air show sponsored by the RAF, will bring hundreds of thousands of people to the base on July 19 and 20.

And, of course, the war on terrorism goes on. There’s little time to sleep at Sleepy Hollow.

“A lot of people come here and think it’s going to be an easy tour,” Meyer said. “It’s far from that.”


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