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Balad's busy aerial port supports, supplies the fight

by Senior Airman Candace Romano
332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

3/30/2007 - BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq (AFNEWS) -- The drone of forklifts moving pallets breaks the smoke-filled haze as members of the 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron Aerial Port Flight work against the clock to expedite critical hub-and-spoke missions.

Whether it is aircraft parts and ammunition, or fire trucks and heavily armored vehicles, essential supplies for warfighters are palletized, loaded onto aircraft and sent downrange.

"Balad is the aerial port hub for all of Iraq and the busiest cargo aerial port in the Department of Defense," said Maj. Preston McFarren, Aerial Port Flight commander. "We run a huge operation for cargo movement in-theater. The CONUS [Continental United States] super-ports only move half the tonnage and passengers we move at any given time here."

During Air Expeditionary Force 5-6, the flight expects to support approximately 6,955 cargo missions and process about 73,929 passengers through the port, said Staff Sgt. Thomas Roberts, NCO in charge of data records.

As the busiest aerial port flight in DOD, they average about 50 percent more tons than the busiest Air Mobility Command ports in the CONUS, Major McFarren said. He is a reservist deployed from the 433rd Airlift Wing's 26th Aerial Port Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

The aerial porters control the core of all aerial logistics in Iraq utilizing the hub-and-spoke concept, a method of intra-theater airlift conceived from organizations like FedEx and the United Parcel Service. As a result, tactical airlift has streamlined the process and provided a safer means of moving personnel and cargo, as well as aiding with convoy mitigation.

"The more cargo we can put in the air, the more we can reduce the size and frequency of convoys out on the road," said Chief Master Sgt. Steven Saxon, the aerial port flight superintendent, also deployed from the 433rd Airlift Wing at Lackland AFB. "If it can go by air, we send it that way."

Their mission is saving time, getting supplies to warfighters, and potentially saving lives.

"Our purpose is to keep them off of the ground," said Senior Airman Michael Olsen, an air transportation journeyman deployed from Little Rock AFB, Ark. "During this rotation, it is estimated we will have prevented more than 190 convoys and saved over 10,000 soldiers from being placed in harm's way on Iraqi roads. I'm very proud of the job we're doing, and the impact we're having is rewarding."

Each pallet can hold up to 10,000 pounds of cargo, and roughly four pallets equals a truckload. The C-130 Hercules can carry six pallets. By increasing the number of pallets put on an aircraft instead of on a truck in a convoy, the flight reduces the number of vehicles required, Major McFarren said.

Cargo processors build up and break down pallets for travel, and the flight's load planners check weight and balance requirements for supplies and equipment scheduled for airlift. The Air Terminal Operations Center, the aerial port command cell, provides coordination for the flight.

Special handling involves processing hazardous and valuable materials and registered mail. They also handle precious cargo -- the remains of servicemembers who have made the ultimate sacrifice -- when airlift missions dedicated solely to this purpose take flight.

"Seeing a fallen comrade going home makes us comprehend the realities of war," said Airman 1st Class Luther Franklin, an air transportation journeyman deployed from Charleston AFB, S.C. "It puts things in perspective ... it's hard to see, but it's an honor for us to do it."

The Airmen with the flight have learned quickly to deal with challenges in a deployed environment. The close to 100 Airmen assigned to the 332nd ELRS with its 24/7 operations, do the work of 400 Airmen assigned to some of AMC's largest ports.

"The Airmen move a tremendous amount of cargo and passengers, getting the job done through hard work and a whole lot of willpower," Major McFarren said. "As busy as this flight is, and in spite of the reduced manpower we're working with, what's being accomplished here is a real testament to the abilities of the Airmen and NCOs. The work they're doing is absolutely phenomenal."

The aerial porters are also safely loading a wide assortment of aircraft in about half the time than they're used to at home station.

"By reducing time on the ground for air and ground crews and operating on expedited ground time, we make sure the maximum number of missions go out every day," Major McFarren said. He considers his deployment here a first in a hostile environment. "It's a huge challenge to load cargo in half the time we're used to back home -- we're always re-adapting load plans and changing gears to meet mission requirements, and there's no room for error."

Despite the high-paced environment, one Airman feels the relief and affirmation after a completed mission and successful delivery.

"When we see armor kits and water going downrange, we know it's keeping coalition forces alive and possibly easing the stress of their deployment," Airman Franklin said.
Members of the aerial port flight may be "behind the scenes," but they're making the war possible.

"Our Airmen are putting assets on target," Chief Saxon said. "We're delivering pallets, supplies and equipment to the war machine."

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