—Marc V. Schanz at Bagram AB, Afghanistan
April 27, 2007— Air Force Magazine Associate Editor Marc Schanz filed this report on his way home from Southwest Asia. (Read his first report here.)
In a sea of temporary huts tents and trailers, a small three-story building sits in the middle of the main supply route at Bagram, looking over the Air Force's Camp Cunningham compound—home of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing. (Airmen named the camp for SrA. Jason Cunningham, a pararescueman killed during Operation Anaconda in 2002.) The first glance at the yellowed, concrete structure, which is the Bagram airfield tower, reveals a building that seems incredibly out of place. The sides are cracked, and there are indentations and missing chunks, the result of long-past shell impacts.
Glenn Allison, a civilian contractor who manages daily tower operations, said the facility was the focal point of one of the last battles of the initial fall 2001 offensive against the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies. The hardened bomb shelter in the basement formerly served as a refuge against regular shelling from past wars, but now is used for storage.
Looking out at the airfield from the battle-scarred air control tower that also survived the Soviet occupation and years of intractable civil war, Col. Greg Haase points out the locations of the air assets on the flight line. Army aviation resides at the far south end, next to the cargo staging area—known as "steel beach"—which abuts the contract air services section that helps ferry supplies to far-flung forward operating bases along the frontier with Pakistan. Farther down the flightline, a host of USAF aircraft—A-10s, F-15Es, C-17s, and C-130s—and Navy EA-6B Prowlers form the primary US presence. The airfield, which sits at an elevation of 4,895 feet at the edge of the Hindu Kush range, hosts a variety of US, coalition, and contract aircraft.
Haase, who is the deputy commander for the 455th Expeditionary Operations Group, is responsible for the health of the largest and primary air operations hub for US and coalition forces operating in Afghanistan. Getting the airfield up to speed hasn't been easy, Haase told Air Force Magazine; however, he added, "If there's a piece of concrete that blows up, we find a way to work around it."
Constructed in the late 1950s as part of an aid package to Afghanistan's Soviet-friendly government, the airfield later was a staging area for many offensives during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s—even serving as a base for elite Spetsnaz units chasing Mujahadeen insurgents.
Allison has been the civilian in charge of air traffic control operations at the airfield for approximately four years. His company, Panama City, Fla.-based Readiness Management Support, also manages contracts at several other US Central Command facilities, such as Kandahar Airfield to the south and Manas Airport in Kyrgyzstan. But Bagram offered a special challenge, with its high ops tempo and limited infrastructure.
When asked how he handles the limited approaches available to the base through the surrounding high mountain passes, he laughs and says, "We need lots of oxygen, that's for sure." Just before his arrival in 2002, nearly all landings at the field were jumpy, twisting tactical landings, but with the addition of new equipment and better security in the surrounding Parwan Province, the situation has improved.
Installation of an instrument landing system during the last few months has helped controllers to be able to sequence aircraft better during implement weather. Allison noted that the US was the first to install ILS and other airfield instrumentation in Afghanistan.
"Think of Bagram as a medium-sized airport in the states," Allison said. The Federal Aviation Administration has a measurement called a "complexity index" that rates how busy a field is and what kind and pace of commercial traffic it receives. Bagram would rate an 11, Allison noted, putting it on par with international airports in places such as Tampa, Fla. With US and coalition military operations and the now-revived commercial service, the facility has been getting busier each year.
Haase explained that a crowded ramp condition—the product of too few permanent hangars—has made managing air traffic a fine art. "We run things on a first come, first serve basis," he said. However, the stand-up of the Kabul-based area control center has aided the workload for air traffic controllers. The civilian-managed Kabul control center helps process aircraft at both Kabul Airport and traffic headed to Bagram.
Across the runway, on the far eastern side, Air Force RED HORSE construction specialists are leading work on a new tower among other projects, such as repairing the large concrete slabs that form much of the airfield. The new tower will have new radars, digital tracking technology, and guidance tools.
Air Force and Afghan officials celebrated the completion in December 2006 of a $68 million project begun in 2004 to replace the Soviet occupation-era runway, which simply couldn’t support the heavy operations tempo—about one landing or takeoff every four minutes—or larger cargo aircraft. The new runway is 2,000 feet longer and 11 inches thicker than the old one.
Even as construction was underway, airfield operations continued. "It was a major effort, and there's still work to be done" Allison recalled, noting that while one side of the runway was closed and construction crews were hard at work, aircraft still landed on the other side.
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