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Gateway To Afghanistan

Dispatches from Manas

Archive for October 2010

Rebuilding Hope

Video: Fairchild airmen deliver aid, forge relationships at Kyrgyzstan preschool.

Manas coverage in print editions

Here’s an electronic recap of the Manas-related articles published over the past week in The Spokesman-Review’s print editions:

Tuesday (10.19.2010): Front-line support — A look at a typical refueling mission over the rugged battlefields of Afghanistan.

Thursday (10.21.2010): Rebuilding hope — A look at the humanitarian assistance efforts of U.S. military men and women deployed at Manas, many of them Fairchild volunteers.

Sunday (10.24.2010): A two story package examining the base’s uncertain future amid Kyrgyzstan’s political turmoil, and the teamwork that keeps KC-135s in the air and Manas on the move.

And, here’s an SR article from 2009 examining Fairchild’s links to creation of the U.S. base at Manas amid an eventually scuttled eviction notice. Among the tidbits: So many Fairchild airmen were deployed at the base that they staged a makeshift Bloomsday run one year; and an unfortunate mishap involving a fiery collision between a KC-135 and a commercial airliner.

Experts warn against continued tanker delays

Two defense experts stepped up the pressure this week to end the political debate over the next generation aerial refueling tanker, and move forward — even while acknowleding that another round of delays is possible, at least in the short term.

Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research, considers aerial refueling critical to national defense, particularly in the Pacific, and predicts that next month’s expected selection may be delayed yet again by a few more months, calling the fierce competion for the $35 billion contract one of the “longest and most complicated acquisitions ever.” She’s written a white paper called “9 Secrets of the Tanker War,” which examines the decade-long effort to choose a replacement for the KC-135.

It’s an interesting read and some may conclude she favors the EADS bid over the Boeing bid. She insists she’s not taking sides except to point out that when limiting examination only to the needs of the Pacific, which is her primary focus, a tanker that has greater offload capability and longer “linger” times would seem preferable. More on that can be found in a posting at DoD Buzz, along with a potent reader comment thread.

Meanwhile, another defense expert, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Norman Selp, added his voice to those expressing concern over continued delays, telling reporters Oct. 19 at the National Press Club that aerial refueling is critical to combat commanders:

“I think everyone’s worst nightmare is a KC-135 disappears over the mid-Atlantic,” he said on a Federal News Radio segment about the tanker issue. “How did it go down? Will we ever find out? And is it because of an aging aircraft, and what does that mean about the risks that we have to do with our sons and daughters flying that aircraft. So that urgency is there.”

Having just spent 42 hours or so flying in KC-135s over the past week and a half, including two North Atlantic crossings between Fairchild and RAF Mildenhall, the scenario described by Selp was a bit too close for personal comfort. It’s a route that Fairchild crews fly at least once a week shuttling new equipment and personnel to Kyrgyzstan and back.

Manas Transit Center

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Manas Transit Center, where hundreds of airmen and women from Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane are regularly deployed, is a key supply and refueling hub for U.S. and coalition combat operations in nearby Afghanistan. Photographer Colin Mulvany and deputy city editor David Wasson recently visited the base on a tour arranged by the U.S. Air Force.

Compare and contrast

Airman 1st Class Travis Carter had been in Baghdad when combat operations dwindled and he found out he’d be redeployed to Kyrgyzstan.

Initially worried about what it would be like, he’s now glad to be at Manas, assigned to the logistics and readiness squadron. He helps oversee the fuel-intake depot, where nearly half a million gallons of fuel is trucked to the base daily before being treated and prepared for aviation use.

“You still have to be aware,” Carter said earlier this week when drawing comparisons between Manas and Baghdad. “But we work with Kyrgyz nationals every day they’re really trustworthy.”

From ‘need to know’ to ‘need to share’

   Manas commanders regularly struggle with what they consider flawed perceptions of the U.S. air base’s military role showing up in Russian, Kyrgyz and other predominantly foreign media.

   So, Manas is turning inside out the military’s precautionary mindset that all information be guarded on a “need to know” basis, and hoping that a more open and inviting relationship with the supply base’s neighbors will help ease Kyrgyz apprehension about its purpose.

   “We call it `a need to share,’” said Col. Dwight Sones, commander of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing at Manas.

   The base has begun actively encouraging Kyrgyz nationals to visit the Transit Center, drawing an estimated 2,000 from the Bishkek area last week for tours, demonstrations and barbecue. Earlier, it hosted several foreign media organizations from as far away as Russia, China, Japan and England.

   So far, it’s helped identify at least one contributor to some of the worried speculation: windowless dormitories with separate air conditioning units for each room.

   The perception apparently had been that the buildings were being secretly used for something much more important than dormitories because it’s so uncommon in this part of the world to provide such amenities for rank-and-file troops, explained Major John Elolf.

The solution? Elolf made sure that those who were worried about the buildings got a chance to tour them.

Airmen visit preschool

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Airmen from the 92nd Air Refueling Wing out of Fairchild Air Force Base made a humanitarian visit to the Solnyshko preschool in Vasilievka, Kyrgyzstan, on Monday, Oct 18, 2010. The children received donated winter coat, balloons, stuffed animals and school supplies, as well as the visitors’ attention. Military servicemen and -women from the Manas Transit Center have been volunteering regularly at schools, orphanages and women’s centers in communities near the base.

UPDATE: An electronic version of the article published Thursday in The SR about humanitarian outreach efforts at Manas can be found here:

Hungry Caterpillar reaches Kyrgyzstan

Some things are universal.
And now it would seem safe to add “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to that list.
The 1969 children’s classic by Eric Carle became an instant hit with a roomful of Kyrgyz preschoolers this week, read to them by Tech Sgt. Trish Newton and translated into Russian and native Kyrgyz by an Air Force interpreter and the preschool’s principal.
At one point in the story, as the caterpillar ate through a bunch of strawberries after chomping through other fruits and vegetables four days in a row, a young boy laughed and began talking rapidly. Others in the classroom began laughing, too.
The interpreter explained that the boy was amused that something so small could eat so much and still be so hungry.
Later, of course, the youngsters reacted with soft “oooohs” of approval as the story ends and – SPOILER ALERT – the caterpillar emerges from its cocoon as a beautiful butterfly.
Newton was among a handful of Manas volunteers journeying to the Solnyshko preschool in a small impoverished village about 20 miles from the air base to deliver winter coats and blankets donated by Spokane-area families and churches. The coat-and-blanket drive was organized by KHQ TV. The donated supplies were flown to Kyrgyzstan aboard a Fairchild-based KC-135 deployed to Manas last week.
Military servicemen and women have been volunteering regularly at schools, orphanages and women’s centers in communities near the base as part of an outreach effort.

(Watch for a full story and photo package about this week’s humanitarian mission in an upcoming edition of The SR and, of course, at

Spotlight on aging tanker fleet

Stars and Stripes today rolled out a Page One examination of America’s aging KC-135 fleet, questioning whether two wars have put too much strain on aircraft designed in the 1950s and facing replacement delays because of mishaps, scandal and politics.

It’s a good overall read, and includes interesting insights from a broad range of observers. The story focuses on the 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Mildenhall in England, though many of the sentiments expressed are similar to those I heard during the past few days at Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan, where about a dozen Fairchild tankers are deployed.

Just in case you missed the hyperlink above, here it is again:

Off to war

At the Manas Transit Center, Marines with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, make final preparations for haeding downrange in to Afghanistan Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010.

Status symbol

Apparently you have to have status in your village to wear one of these hats. In a village we passed through Monday, I spotted these men gathering to chat wearing their traditional ‘kolpaks’ (tall felt hats.)

A common sight

The donkey cart is a common sight in the small villiages near the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan. I spotted this one passing a pre-school that Fairchild airmen were visiting Monday.

Nursing a double tall

It is 12:30 a.m. and I just gave up my bunk to a U.S. Army officer heading to Afghanistan. I have only six hours left of my stay at the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan. This place is jamming with a surge of new arrivals “heading downrange,” which makes bunk space severely limited on base. So I sit, nursing a double tall in a base coffee shop, surrounded with all my gear and a dying laptop battery. I’m so tired …

When a full bladder is a good thing

There’s a saying among KC-135 crews that goes something like, “You can’t kick ass without tanker gas.” It’s a not-so-subtle way of reminding hotshot fighter jocks that the range and versatility of their sleek, high-powered strike jets — particularly when fully armed — would be much more limited without the extra fuel delivered in mid air day and night by the Air Force’s massive aerial tanker fleet.

But those ever-present tankers would have nothing to deliver if it weren’t for P-O-L, the link in the supply chain that stands for “Petroleum, Oil and Lubricants.”

Manas Transit Center’s bladder farm can hold nearly 4 million gallons of fuel, most of it aviation grade. Deliveries arrive from Bishkek around the clock, keeping the 20 bladders filled, each of which can hold 200,000 gallons. It takes four to five tarmac fuel trucks to prepare a KC-135R Stratotanker for each refueling mission.

“We’re the largest expeditionary bladder farm” in the U.S. Defense Department, said Master Sgt. Christina Scampatilla, who runs the fueling facility.

Guardsmen from the Heartland

About 120 members of the Iowa National Guard, part of an advance crew for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, waited patiently in lines Sunday outside of a Manas supply tent, where they filed in based on body size to be issued body armor.

The group was expected to board a plane for Afghanistan by Monday, making preparations for when the 3,100-member bridgade joins them at Bagram. On a supply base that moves, on average, 1,200 troops a day, the guardsmen stood out for a couple of reasons. They were noticeably more focused while in line for the supply tent, reorganizing themselves quickly into new lines after being advised of a change in procedure, and appeared to be a bit older, on average, than many of the troop clusters found throughout Manas.

“We figure that about 60 percent (of the brigade) has been deployed before,” said Major Mike Wunn. It’s believed to be the largest unit call up of the Iowa National Guard since World War II.

`Gunslingers’ on patrol over Afghanistan

Two F/A-18E Super Hornets from the decorated U.S. Navy attack squadron VFA 105, commonly known as the “Gunslingers,” were among the half dozen fighter jets refueled Saturday above Afghanistan by a Fairchild-based KC-135 tanker and crew on deployment in Kyrgyzstan.

The carrier-based strike fighters rely on the aerial tanker’s wing-mounted refueling hoses rather than the tail boom that most aircraft use for air-to-air fuel deliveries. The fighter jet’s fuel nozzle is located on the nose of the aircraft, which pilots must guide into the hose and keep their speed and course matched up with the KC-135R Stratotanker until the delivery is complete.

The squadron’s jets are easy to spot because its nickname is emblazoned in capital letters across the strike fighters’ massive drop tanks.

The Gunslingers have racked up a number of history-making accomplishments, including first fighter squadron led by a female, Cmdr. Sara Joyner, who also has become the first woman to lead an entire carrier air wing. The squadron is based aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, which has been launching combat sorties in support of U.S. and Coalition forces serving in Afghanistan since this summer.

An SR photo slideshow from the refueling sortie can be found here:
An electronic version of The SR article published Tuesday about the Manas refueling mission can be found here:

Two beer limit

One of the surprises at Manas is its selection of beer, which includes an edgy, high-octane Russian import called “9” that blends a bit of vodka with the hops. And it’s just $2 a bottle.

But you’d be wise to savor each sip because the base also has a daily limit of two beers per person.

Bartenders enforce the restriction by scanning customer ID cards, and a computer tracks purchases in 24-hour cycles rather than by the calendar day. That’s signifant because Manas is a 24-hour base, which means everything — even the bar — is open around the clock, since troops are arriving from all over the world at all hours of the day and from a multitude of varying time zones.

Relics of Soviet past

The U.S. air base shares the same runway as Bishkek’s commercial airport, which is littered with decaying aircraft from Kyrgyzstan’s recent Soviet past. Many of the Soviet-era buildings around the airport, some still in use, show severe deterioration as well.

Dozens of dilapidated aircraft — ranging from modern-style passenger jets to World War II era CCCP biplanes — are packed into a makeshift boneyard on several acres at the east end of the airfield. Frighteningly, some of the jets apparently are still considered airworthy.

Fairchild mechanics on deployment at Manas say that every once in a while they’ll see Kyrgyz crews tow planes out of the boneyard and to the commercial side of the airfield, where they’re apparently put to use. “It’s like if they can get the engines to start, that’s all that matters,” said a bewildered KC-135 mechanic.

Turkish surprise

The best-kept dining secret at Manas Transit Center is a Turkish cafeteria operating in a converted cargo container.

It’s surprisingly clean, quaint and delicious — the kind of place that would steal the show if the Food Network ever did a Kyrgyzstan edition of its TV series, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

One of our escorts had heard about the boutique cafeteria, which is away from the main part of the base, and is designed to primarily serve Turkish contractors expanding the airport’s tarmac. It has one serving line, one bathroom and just two long dining tables, plus a big-screen TV with foreign programming. Since there’s no signs on the cargo trailer, the cafeteria could easily be mistaken from the outside as a make-shift office, particularly on an expeditionary base with few permanent structures.

The meal was tasty — rice, cooked vegetables and some kind of links, along with a spicy split pea soup. But since the proprietor doesn’t speak English, no one in our group knows exactly what it was we had for lunch.

Bonding with Americans

Bishkek lawyer Louiza Abvullaeva, decked out in leather pants, stilletto heals and a designer T-shirt, was among the estimated 2,000 Kyrgyz residents to visit Manas Transit Center during the air base’s annual Friends and Family Day on Saturday.

“I have a bond with American people,” Abvullaeva said in slightly fractured English after hugging and posing for pictures with Airman 1st Class Joseph Riemer, who was ominously adorned in protective gear as part of a demonstration of the 376th explosive ordinance removal unit. “It’s cool. In Bishkek, people would look at me and … not understand.”

The celebration is dedicated to the hundreds of Kyrgyz contractors and civilian employees working at the U.S. base.

Attending with Abvullaeva was her sister, Newton Bela, who said her daughter-in-law works as a pharmacist in Spokane.


Sleepless in Kyrgyzstan

It is 4:40 a.m. in the morning in Kyrgyzstan and I can’t sleep. I’ve been bunking with an Army soldier who is headed home from Afghanistan. He, like many others we’ve met, have that far-away stare that is so common with guys coming out of combat situations. All he volunteered about Afghanistan was that it was really F’d up. He just packed up and left for home. I wish him well.

A delicate maneuver

In a delicate dance between man and machine high above Afghanistan, an F-15E Eagle tops off its tanks with jet fuel provided by a Fairchild Air Force Base 92nd Air Refuling Wing KC-135 Stratotanker on deployment at the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan.

Welcome to Manas

The Manas Transit Center’s latest tanker landed Friday at the Kyrgyzstan base, unloading two pallets of coats, blankets and other humanitarian supplies collected from across the Inland Northwest.

The supplies will be distributed in villages and schools within the impoverished Central Asian nation by Air Force personnel deployed at Manas, many of whom volunteer their time to help with distribution and outreach efforts, said Major Elliot Safdie, who oversees humanitarian and other assistance programs for the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing.

On the tarmac was Senior Airman Dustin Harder, a mechanic with the Fairchild-based 141st National Guard Air Refueling Wing who is about half way through his first deployment to Manas. Harder, of Cheney, has been working 12-hour shifts, six days a week, inspecting and maintaining KC-135R engines.

“It aint too bad as long as you keep busy,” Harder said with a laugh.

Meanwhile, the Fairchild-based KC-135R joins about a dozen aerial tankers on the flightline at Manas and four C-17 Globemaster III cargo jets. The base serves as a supply hub for Afghanistan.

Tankers flying out of Manas deliver, on average, 750,000 pounds of fuel daily to combat jets and other aircraft operating over Afghanistan, said Major John Elolf.


Experience what it is like to be inside a KC-135R Stratotanker as it takes off from Fairchild Air Force Base en-route to a deployment at the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan.

Sleep when you can…

As morning light breaks over the Atlantic Ocean, Airman 1St Class James White with 92nd Air Refueling Wing from Fairchild Air Force Base, sleeps during his nine-hour flight to England in a KC-135R air refueling tanker Oct. 14, 2010. White is on his way to a four-month deployment in Kyrgyzstan that will involve deicing aircraft at the Manas Transit Center.

Preparing for winter

The temperature in Bishkek when the KC-135 landed at Manas was in the low 70s, a bit of an October oddity for this part of Central Asia, but five of the Fairchild-based airmen aboard are a reminder that winter is on the way.

They are the first aircraft de-icing team of the season to be deployed to Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous nation known for its harsh winters.

The airmen — Derek Vaughn, staff sergeant; Daniel Goodman, senior airman; Josh Myers, Antonio Rapp and James White, all airmen 1st class — will undergo training after a 12-hour acclimation to the 13-hour time zone difference in Bishkek.

At least one member of the new crew already has had a crash course. Goodman was pressed into service as a de-icer when he first was stationed at Fairchild during Spokane’s record-breaking winter of 2008-09.

Prepare for landing

After an overnight in England, Capt. Chris Dieter and his co-pilot Lincoln Olsen prepare to land their KC-135R Stratotanker at Manas Transit Center Oct. 15, 2010. The night before, over the Atlantic Ocean, the crew was given a front row seat to a massive Northern Lights show.

Not business class

Airmen with the 92nd  Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base strap in for a seventeen hour flight to the Manas Transit Center in  Kyrgyzstan. The aircrew and five maintainers are in route to Kyrgyzstan aboard a Fairchild KC-135R Stratotanker refueling aircraft for a five-month deployment.

Halfway there

For all the discomfort of long-distance military flying, there is this distinct advantage: A flight crew with a keen sense for keeping a plane steady and an enviable ability to smoothly put a gigantic jet onto just about any runway.

RAF Mildenhall, north of London near Cambridge, is an overnight stopping point for the Kyrgyzstan-bound KC-135R, its crew and several other Fairchild airmen reporting for duty at Manas Transit Center. For the flight crew, it’s a mandatory resting period before pushing on to Kyrgyzstan.

Highlights from the nine-hour first leg of the journey include a spectacular view from 39,000 feet of the Northern Lights while skirting the southern shores of Greenland over the North Atlantic. But because the plane has so few windows the mesmerisingly green display could only be seen from a side window in the cockpit.

Greeting the Fairchild-based jet at the British airfield were security forces, assalt rifles slung from their shoulders, with a stern prohibition against any photographs on the flightline, and a warning to stay away from any areas designated by red lines. Welcome to England.

Kyrgyzstan bound

This is a different way of flying.

Cargo is tied to the sides of the interior fuselage. Pallets are strapped to the floor. You carry your own food. There’s just two window seats, and those are actually benches. There’s just one bathroom.

Even with the removable airline-style seats added to the cargo area to help accommodate the additional passengers on this particular flight, the KC-135R is uncomfortable, cold and noisy.

Of course, the jet wasn’t designed for passenger comfort.

It’s the picture of functional utility – the backbone of the U.S. Military’s global reach. The aerial refueling tanker excels at keeping thirsty combat jets in the air, extending the length of time they’re available and ready to pounce when NATO ground troops need support. And it extends the range of military cargo jets carrying troops, supplies and humanitarian aid to where ever it’s needed.

Fairchild airmen who’ve made the two-day trip to Manas Transit Center have developed a time-tested way of coping with the long, cold, noisy flight: sleep.

Departure delayed

Mechanics plan to work through the night to figure out what’s wrong with the jet’s steering.

Given the delay, the pilot and crew scrubbed the possibility of a Tuesday takeoff, opting instead for a Wednesday afternoon departure.


During taxiing to the runway at Fairchild Air Force Base, our pilot noticed that he had trouble steering the nose gear of aircraft.  We have deplaned and await word whether we can continue on with the trip tonight, or come back tomorrow and try again.

Don’t forget your earplugs

The KC-135 is loaded and the deployment briefing is done.

In addition to learning how to thwart potential hijackers, earplugs were passed out. Apparently, flying in a refueling tanker is quite a bit noisier than commercial jets. It’s also so cold that sleeping bags are considered necessary carry-on items.

The massive jet is being returned to the flight line at Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan after being overhauled at Fairchild. It’s carrying several pallets of humanitarian supplies and fresh Fairchild crews.

First stop, however, is an overnighter at RAF Mildenhall, north of London.


No clear mandate from Kyrgz voters

Attitudes about the U.S. supply base at Manas vary among the five political parties that apparently will have to share control of Kyrgyzstan following Sunday’s historic vote. Although the Manas Transit Center was a factor in the campaigns, with some calling for its eviction but others favoring its economic contributions to the impoverished nation, the strategic air field took a backseat to other domestic issues.

Meanwhile, President Obama praised Kyrgz voters for the peaceful election, and expressed hope that an effective coalition government can emerge from the five-way power split.

You can read an Associated Press article about the initial election results here. And, the White House statement on the Kyrgz election results can be found here.

Kyrgz politician hints at hiking rent for U.S. air base

One of the political coalitions vying for control of Kyrgyzstan might hike U.S. rent to $100 million a year for continued use of Manas Transit Center, which serves as a major NATO supply hub into Afghanistan. The potential rent hike was discussed by one of the coalition’s leaders during an interview with The Associated Press in advance of Sunday’s nationwide vote in Kyrgyzstan.

A copy of the full AP article can be found by clicking here.

Spokane’s growing links to Kyrgyzstan

The connections between Spokane, Wash. and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan became abundantly clear in The Spokesman-Review newsroom back in April of this year.

The City Desk, no stranger to unusual questions and requests from across the Inland Northwest, began fielding phone calls from readers asking various renditions of this: “What’s the latest out of Kyrgyzstan?”

A quick scan of The Associated Press international wires, at the time, showed violent protests had erupted throughout the capital city of Bishkek, and that ethnic violence to the south had turned increasingly bloody. The violent protests would eventually topple the Kyrgz leadership, but what piqued our curiosity was why so many of our readers were paying such close attention to the internal affairs of an impoverished former Soviet republic 6,000 miles and 13 time zones away.

The answer was found on Spokane’s West Plains, specifically Fairchild Air Force Base.

Bishkek is home to Manas Transit Center, a NATO airfield serving as a major supply hub into Afghanistan, and Fairchild crews are instrumental in keeping the base operational. The deployed crews are serving under the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing.

Now, we’re traveling to Bishkek for a week or so to get a firsthand look, and bring back stories of the increasing role of the 376th in keeping NATO troops supplied and combat jets in the air.

The trip was arranged by the Fairchild-based 92nd Air Refueling Wing, and made available to Spokane-area journalists. We’ll be departing Oct. 12 aboard one of Fairchild’s aging KC-135 tankers as it heads from the overhaul bays of the West Plains to the flight line at Manas.

Our hope is that this blog, Gateway to Afghanistan: Dispatches from Manas, becomes a way to bring readers along.

Making the trip for The Spokesman-Review are veteran journalists Colin Mulvany, a photographer and multimedia producer, and David Wasson, a deputy city editor. Both will be posting regularly — or at least as regularly as available WiFi permits.

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About this blog

Fairchild Air Force Base supplies 80 percent of the military aircraft and flight crews operating out of Manas Transit Center, a key hub along one of the primary NATO supply routes into Afghanistan. The small base, located outside the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek, is barely 400 miles from the Afghan border.


Colin Mulvany is a staff photographer for The Spokesman-Review.

David Wasson is a deputy city editor for The Spokesman-Review.

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