Extra passengers

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Warren Weldon
  • 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling in-flight refueling program manager
Tech. Sgt. Warren Weldon is a member of the 344th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron currently deployed to Southwest Asia in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

My day started at 6:30 a.m. with scheduled redeployments of three jets, their crews, as well as other KC-135 Stratotanker operations and maintenance personnel.

Master Sgt. Michael Murray, the squadron first sergeant, and I were in the middle of a "hell week," where we deploy and redeploy a larger amount of people and aircraft than normal.

To accomplish this, coordination with five other on-base is required including the 379th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron, for transportation of the crew and passengers and sometimes to secure extra vehicles to transport their deployment gear; the 340th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, for the deployment and redeployment of their maintenance folks; the 379th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron, specifically Aircrew Flight Equipment) for disposition of aircrew weapons and chemical defense equipment; the 8th Expeditionary Air Mobility Squadron, for the movement of other KC-135 duty passengers and baggage as well as the baggage movement of the crews and maintenance personnel and the Personnel Support for Contingency Operations office to inprocess and outprocess all the people coming into and out of the country.

Most of these agencies need to know if there is a change in timing of missions or personnel and with it, a potential for plans to change because of the amount of the people and aircraft involved.

Things started off as well as could be expected, moving a few dozen servicemembers eager to go home. Sergeant Murray and I had a "master plan" with some extra time built in for any hiccups during the process which involves, among other things: room inspections, checking out of billeting, final outprocessing of the base and finally immigrating servicemembers out of the country and to the aircraft.

By 6:50 a.m., we had completed inspections, got everyone checked out of billeting and were close to final outprocessing for everyone. Most of the individuals leaving on this day were Air National Guard who deployed for a 60-day rotation.

For many of the servicemembers redeploying, this was their first rotation. Their spirits were high, and they were looking forward to reuniting with loved ones and shrugging off a rough, hard-working deployment.

Not surprisingly, my cell phone rang as we delivered our personnel to the PERSCO office for outprocessing. It was the squadron director of operations, letting me know that one of our outbound jets, was going to transport two HRs -- human remains. We were to make arrangements to our schedule so we could hold a "Fallen Warrior" ceremony as soon as possible.

My heart sank a little, not because of a change in plans, but because we were going to send two individuals home who had made the ultimate sacrifice to their country. I had to make sure we would give these warriors our best.

Sergeant Murray and I revised the schedule of the other redeploying jets to concentrate our efforts on the ceremony.

I quickly found the aircrew for the flight, but realized that of none of us had ever done this ceremony before. I would say about 99 percent of fallen warriors are traditionally transported to Dover Air Force Base, Del., by normal airlifters, the C-5 Galaxies and C-17 Globemasters, not KC-135 Stratotankers. However, it has happened before in the past and I am familiar with the customs and procedures involved, so I briefed the pilots and two boom operators of the participating crew.

The crew's mood changed from the normal high-spiritedness of going home to a calm reality considering the two extra passengers.

After contacting our normal agencies, they accommodated the changes to our schedule without hesitation, and we were able to make it to the jet in record time.

Tech. Sgt. Nathan Hackney, 379th Expeditionary Operation Group boom operator, joined us to help.

Our first step required loading and stowing the baggage and professional gear of the redeployers on board, ensuring there was a clear space on the cargo deck available.

We then prepositioned a K-loader high-lift vehicle to transport the fallen warriors to the waiting KC-135 cargo door, 12 feet above the ground. The 33
redeploying Airmen scheduled on that flight, as well as other members of our squadron gathered at the far end of the K-loader as two transport vans arrived with our final passengers.

The other boom operators and I remained on the aircraft to receive the warriors. The chaplain then led a prayer for their safe journey and the Airmen in attendance formed into two lines on either side of the K-loader.

Slowly and quietly, the K-loader was raised to the level of the KC-135 cargo deck and the warriors were carefully brought on board.

After clearing the K-loader and closing the cargo door, the other boom operators and I silently began securing the warriors in place. We took extra care to make sure the flags draped over them would not be disturbed by our work, ensuring nothing would infringe upon this place on the jet.

Finally, we said our good-byes to the air crew and let them take over the task of safely transporting the warriors to their loved ones, wherever they might be.

That morning was a humbling experience and I am so glad to have had the honor of participating in it. It drives home to me what being an Airman means today, and I will never forget it.