WASHINGTON — The Air Force’s Air Mobility Command has been able to continue providing airlift capabilities despite the cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano that has troubled air travel, a senior officer responsible for moving military personnel and equipment around the world said yesterday.
“As soon as we saw the potential impact from the volcanic ash cloud forming, we initiated some discussion about possible consequences and courses of action,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Randy Kee, vice commander of the 618th Tanker Airlift Control Center at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., said during a “DoD Live” bloggers roundtable.
“This planning turned into reality in a matter of a couple of hours,” he added.
Kee added that since rerouting of air traffic became necessary, the command has flown enough people to fill Madison Square Garden, and the equivalent of 175 fully loaded semi trucks of cargo.
“It’s very impressive to see how folks were able to reposition,” Kee said. “All the people that made this happen are heroes to me. This shows some agility that is exceptional. It’s an honor to serve in this great cause.”
The control center provides centralized global command and control of both Air Force and commercial contract aircraft that fulfill the nation’s military airlift requirements. This involves planning, scheduling and tracking airlift, air refueling and aeromedical evacuation missions, and then tasking those missions to units and providing command and control.
Missions the center oversees, Kee said, range from delivering mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, transporting warfighters and providing humanitarian aid in the wake of disaster.
Since the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano April 16, nearly 400 airlift missions controlled by the center have been rerouted due to the ash cloud that closed much of the airspace over Europe.
“In the wake of disaster, the team has the ability to reroute or cancel flights to ensure the safety of passengers and cargo the planes are carrying,” Kee said. Because volcanic ash is easily ingested by engines and can cause them to fail, he explained, pilots don’t fly through ash clouds.
In the early moments of the eruption, the Tanker Airlift Control Center took action to move aircraft, crews and maintenance personnel from Ramstein and Spangdahlem air bases in Germany to staging locations in Spain. This flexibility, Kee said, has allowed those assets to remain in the rotation of aircraft moving troops and cargo to support operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The volcanic ash plume also forced a change in standard aeromedical evacuation operations, including the flight routing that Air Mobility Command uses to move wounded warriors from the U.S. Central Command area to further care.
“Under normal circumstances, the majority of military patients evacuated from Iraq and Afghanistan move to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center [in Germany] for care,” the general said. “Currently, missions are flying to Naval Air Station Rota [in Spain], where they refuel and then bring the patients back to the United States for care.”
When flight routes will go back to normal, he added, depends on the volcano. Officials at the control center are assessing day by day, he said, and don’t plan to return to normal routes until they can do so permanently.
“We are watching this carefully,” Kee said.
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