Rhein-Main sees last scheduled military flight
RHEIN-MAIN AIR BASE, Germany — A gray, round-bodied jet adorned with an American flag lumbered down the runway at Rhein-Main Air Base and rose into the sky Monday, marking the final scheduled military flight to leave from the historic airfield.
The C-17, carrying airport equipment, household goods and about 25 airmen returning to Charleston, S.C., in an otherwise routine flight, departed shortly after noon, signaling the final stages of the base closure and plans to shut down all operations on Friday.
“It’s really a bittersweet kind of thing,” said Lt. Col. Michael Polhemus, commander of the 726th Air Mobility Squadron, which is finalizing its move from Rhein-Main to Spangdahlem Air Base, about 120 miles west of Frankfurt.
Aircraft capacity at Spangdahlem Air Base and Ramstein Air Base has been expanded in recent years in preparation for Rhein-Main’s closure in accordance with a 1999 agreement between the U.S. and Germany.
Officials are planning a formal farewell ceremony on Oct. 10 at the celebrated air base where American jets departed around the clock during the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and where 52 American hostages returned in 1981 after 444 days in Iranian captivity.
Known for years as “the Gateway to Europe,” Rhein-Main has been used by the U.S. military since the close of World War II. After Oct. 1, the base will revert to the German government, which plans, along with the adjacent Frankfurt International Airport, to use the property to build a new commercial air terminal.
Ramstein Air Base will become the primary transit point for troops moving from the United States to operations in the Middle East.
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Rhein-Main Air Base had become “like Sleepy Hollow,” with an average of one or two flights a day, Polhemus said. But traffic at the air base picked up dramatically in recent years, peaking in March 2003 during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. During March 2003, more than 2,000 flights landed at Rhein-Main, transporting more than 50,000 troops.
Closing the base has proven to be much more challenging than originally envisioned in 1999. However, the majority of troops will endure no inconvenience after Rhein-Main closes, Polhemus said.
The 726th Air Mobility Squadron, which handles maintenance, cargo transportation and scheduling at Rhein-Main, will be downsizing from about 212 airmen to 127 when the transition to Spangdahlem is completed next week, Polhemus said.
About 70 airmen will remain at Rhein-Main through the end of this week as commercial charter flights serving military personnel will continue.
The pilot of the C-17, Maj. Edward Evans of the 172nd Air Wing of the Mississippi Air National Guard, said he was honored by the unexpected surprise of taking the last flight out of Rhein-Main.
“To get a chance to fly the last bird out of here, it’s a special moment,” Evans said.