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Gateway To Afghanistan

Dispatches from Manas

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.

Liftoff!

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.

Sputter….

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.

Contributors

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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