SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. --
United States and Coalition forces in Afghanistan are working to advise, train and assist Afghan security forces across the country. In places like Jalalabad Airfield in the country’s far-eastern Nangarhar Province, they recently called for a shipment of vehicles to support their ongoing work with their Afghan partners.
Getting those much-needed vehicles came with a catch.
Jalalabad Airfield’s runway is so narrow, the C-130 and C-17 are the only AMC aircraft that can land at the airfield. Because of the requirement to bring in multiple vehicles on each sortie, the C-17 was required and they would have to back up and take off in the same direction they flew in.
The aircraft would also have to land in the middle of the night and take off again before the sun rose.
The 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron’s C-17 Globemaster crews dropped off the much-needed vehicles Jan. 16, 2017. It took the crew only 70 minutes to land, drop off the cargo, back up and take off again – all on an airfield that hadn’t had a C-17 land on it since 2010.
The 816th EAS, based at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, is vital to the Air Force’s efforts to combat terrorism in the Middle East. Those efforts range from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan.
“The mission these Airmen do and the contributions they make are huge in the effort to win the war against Daesh while helping our partners build capacity providing security in their own countries,” said Lt. Gen. Sam Cox, 18th Air Force commander. “What they do saves lives, every day, by making sure the right cargo and passengers get where they need to safely and on time.”
Although there are multiple mobility forces assigned to AFCENT, the 816th EAS is one of the closest 18th AF assigned units supporting the fight in Iraq and Syria. As the only expeditionary squadron directly reporting to 18th AF, it draws on aircrews and maintainers from every C-17 unit to provide theater-direct delivery to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.
Put simply, the 816th EAS moves stuff.
And as the squadron’s commander, Lt. Col. Steve Anderson, notes, they move a lot of stuff.
“We provide professional and safe combat airlift, bringing massive amounts of bullets, bombs, food, water, construction materials, vehicles, passengers, helicopters and other items to the U.S. and Coalition forces via air-land or airdrop mission sets,” he said. “We fly multiple sorties a day, 365 days a year.”
In 2016, the squadron flew more than 2,400 missions, moving nearly 102,000 tons of cargo and almost 120,000 passengers.
Capt. Andrew Stitt, a C-17 pilot deployed from Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, said the capabilities the squadron brings to the fight make the unit essential to U.S. Central Command’s operations.
“Some of the places where Coalition forces are located are landlocked and do not have channels to obtain the necessary supplies that they need to fight in their region,” Stitt said. “Because we are able to go into those countries with a minimum amount of risk, we are able to directly deliver and fulfill a need for forces to sustain operations.”
Brig. Gen. John Williams is the Air Forces Central Director of Mobility Operations. As the senior mobility officer in USCENTCOM's area of responsibility, he advises senior air component leadership on mobility issues. He said the 816th EAS provides a way around some of the transportation challenges forces in the region face.
“Ground movement has challenges involving constraints from host nations and nations transited,” he explained. “The squadron can rapidly transport passengers and cargo where it is needed to prosecute the war against Daesh. With the C-17, we can accelerate the movement of cargo due to its payload capacity, and its large cargo compartment transports almost anything.”
Tech. Sgt. Jason Fortwengler, 816th EAS Instructor Airdrop Loadmaster, said the squadron has a huge impact, getting munitions to troops fighting against Daesh.
“No doubt the impact we have on the mission is great,” he said. “We are moving millions of pounds of cargo and thousands of passengers through the AOR.”
Unlike other air units deployed to Al Udeid, the 816th EAS and the 385th Air Expeditionary Group under which it falls, report directly to the 18th AF commander, who maintains operational control of the unit, with detachments spread across the region.
Col. Stephanie Williams, the 385th AEG commander, said the group has varied in size over the years to meet the combatant commander’s requirements. As the primary assigned squadron to the group, the 816th EAS contains detachments at various locations in the Middle East.
“The unit fits perfectly into the 18th Air Force mission, especially as the 385th provides an innovative approach to deliver rapid global mobility to the USCENTCOM AOR by providing theater-direct delivery with the C-17,” she said. “The unit is extremely agile in its ability to meet these requirements.”
Flexibility, it is often noted, is the key to airpower, and Anderson said the 816th EAS and the C-17s they fly prove it.
“We are the nation’s strategic and tactical airlift platform,” he said. “As such, we offer flexibility to the CENTCOM commander that no other asset can. Our most commonly seen mission is providing cargo or passenger transfer from one installation to another. However, in the CENTCOM AOR we also perform airdrop missions, we land on semi-prepared runways in austere locations, and on a moment’s notice we often flex from whatever we were originally tasked to accomplish to an aeromedical mission bringing critically wounded patients from downrange locations to Europe for advanced medical care.”
In fact, the squadron moved 113 patients in 2016 alone. But the versatility is not just found in the aircraft. It can also be found in how the squadron is built, which, Anderson said, is unlike any other C-17 squadron in the Air Force.
“By design we are a self-reliant combat airlift unit that leverages the skills and abilities of 10 different Air Force Specialty Codes to get the combat mission done,” he said. “By comparison, most C-17 squadrons have a max of five AFSCs. Together, we work as one team to successfully tackle the challenges associated with combat airlift every day.”
Williams said he hears nothing but good things from commanders about the work the Squadron does in the Middle East.
“The 816th is doing a great job every day moving an incredible amount of cargo and people throughout the AOR,” he said. “There is a seemingly endless demand for the work they do, and they do it very well.”
Anderson said he couldn’t be prouder of his Airmen.
“We work together, we fly together, we fight together, and we laugh together,” he said. “It is an honor and a privilege to command such a fine organization.”
Cox said the 816th, in collaboration with AFCENT’s Air Mobility Division and the 618th Air Operations Center, may make the job look easy, but, it’s not. They are performing an amazing operational mission in support of USCENTCOM.
“Talking with their commanders and the forces they support, I know how vital the Airmen of the 816th EAS are to the fight,” Cox said. “The Rapid Global Mobility they provide get food, ammunition and reinforcements to troops who need them. They also bring our wounded service members home from the fight quickly and safely. I couldn’t be more proud of them and the work they do.”