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McGuire Starlifters fly 'Baghdad Express'

MCGUIRE AIR FORCE BASE, N.J. (AFPN) -- The 6th Airlift Squadron here may be the last active-duty squadron in the Air Force still flying C-141B Starlifters; however, the aircraft is far from being retired.

Though the squadron is being drawn down to make way for the C-17 Globemaster III, its operations tempo has been on the rise. The Iraqis are free and the KC-10s Extenders have returned home, and now the heavy lifting begins -- the Starlifter way.

"We've been getting smaller every day for the last five months, but, if anything, our operations tempo has been going up," said Lt. Col. Eric Wydra, 6th AS commander. "We really are doing more with less."

The KC-10s were used heavily as cargo haulers during the combat portion of the war, but since the reconstruction phase has begun, the C-141s have taken on a bigger role and are now flying a greater number of missions.

Officials at the Air Mobility Command's Tanker Airlift Control Center task about 85 percent of the available Starlifters here daily. This is approximately 20 percent higher than the current KC-10 tasking level, relative to the number of available aircraft here.

In fact, the Starlifters are the only McGuire aircraft going into Iraq right now. Their "Baghdad Express" lands at Baghdad International Airport almost daily.

"Baghdad Express" is the term given to the C-141 re-supply run from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to Baghdad. Two McGuire aircraft, two active-duty aircrews and one Reserve crew from the 514th Air Mobility Wing are staged in Germany flying daily missions into either Baghdad or Kuwait, said Wydra.

"Our job is to re-supply the ground troops who've established a pretty big presence there," said Master Sgt. Bill Marley, a C-141 flight engineer.

The "Baghdad Express" began on May 14 when an eight-person, augmented, active-duty crew took flight over European air toward the area of responsibility.

"It was uneventful through Europe until we hit Turkish airspace," said Lt. Col. Keith Michel, a C-141 pilot examiner. "At that point, all the rules changed. We no longer had normal air traffic control coverage of things like altitudes, airways, speeds or routes."

They made their way along "parkways, avenues and highways" in the sky using the "see and avoid" navigation technique into Iraq.

Once there, they had to use their threat-avoidance arrival and departure procedures to do a tactical approach -- coming in at a high altitude and rapidly descending to the airfield -- in order to avoid threats posed by surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery.

"We had to watch out for generally happy Iraqis who sometimes shot random shots into the air, too," said Sergeant Marley, who was on that first trip into Iraq.

Cargo runs make up about 95 percent of the C-141s' trips into Iraq, resulting in more than 1 million pounds of cargo getting to the troops who need it.

Other flights include medical evacuation missions. One mission carried a belly-full of wounded troops, including two seriously injured Army soldiers suffering from multiple shrapnel wounds caused by a rocket-propelled grenade.

"The whole idea of someone shooting someone else ... I've never seen that before. I'd never been that close," said Capt. Josh Rice, 6th AS co-pilot.

While some 6th AS crews are helping save lives and support combat operations, others are maintaining their routine channel and re-supply missions or unique opportunities. These include a mission to Kazakhstan supporting the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, repatriation missions of WWII aviators' remains, South American counterdrug missions, worldwide embassy support missions, presidential and vice presidential movement support, and Thunderbird aerial demonstration team-support missions.

"From where the sun rises to where the sun sets, we're there," said Tech. Sgt. Karl Eckberg, a loadmaster in the 6th AS.

"They're flying twice as many flying hours now as they did this time last year, they're doing it with fewer people and they're doing it all with smiles on their faces," said Colonel Wydra.

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