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Rain presents a challenge for Air Force crews in Liberia

Marines with the FAST team out of U.S. Naval Air Station Rota, Spain, offload from a Kentucky Air National Gaurd C-130 in Lungi, Sierra Leone, on their way to Liberia.

TECH. SGT. JUSTIN D. PYLE / SPECIAL TO S&S

By MARNI MCENTEE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 24, 2003

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — At their homemade compound at a Sierra Leone civilian airport, U.S. Air Force crews are doing anything they can to come in from the rain.

Lungi International Airport doesn’t have any hangars to spare for the Keflavik, Iceland-based 56th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron’s three HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters.

That’s a challenge in the midst of the West African nation’s rainy season, said Col. Steven Dreyer, commander of the 398th Air Expeditionary Group. The 398th AEG was established with 100 rescue and security forces airmen to support future humanitarian operations in Liberia.

“The rain is like standing under a faucet; it just pours,” Dreyer said. “You can imagine that getting into some of the electronics.”

So maintenance crews and pilots are improvising ways to protect the helicopters’ delicate instrument panels, said Maj. C. Todd Prejean, a pilot.

“The aircraft does not like to be soaked on a daily basis,” Prejean said. “They’ve used trash bags, tarps, hair dryers. We’ve started hanging our gear in the helicopter so it’s not sitting on the floor.”

The waterproofing work is makeshift at best, though.

“Half the time you get in the copter and your gear is drenched. It makes a seven-hour sortie all that much longer when your clothes are soaked through,” Prejean said.

Life in a nonstop rainstorm is one reason Dreyer opted against building a tent city at the airport, which backs up to a thick jungle outside Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown.

In addition to force protection concerns, the area is rife with mosquito-borne malaria. And if it ever stops raining, airmen also would have to contend with threats such as venomous snakes and other vermin, Dreyer said.

So the commander arranged to lodge the airmen in hotels at the airport, where they live two to three to a room.

“It’s not exactly Motel 6. It’s not even an Econo Lodge,” Dreyer said. “It’s very primitive and it’s usually a 50-50 chance if you get hot water. But it is a bed and we have air conditioning.”

Temperatures are averaging about 90 degrees. Airmen, who are on alert 24 hours a day, are pleased with the accommodations.

“We expected tents and knee-deep mud,” Prejean said.


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