California unit prepares bases for Afghanistan surge

The Sacramento BeeDecember 21, 2009 

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE — As more U.S. troops prepare for deployment to Afghanistan following President Barack Obama's decision to build up forces there, many Americans will be watching the efforts of the nation's front-line warriors.

But long before those troops take their first steps in that arid, rugged nation, a little-known but critically important unit based at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield will already be there. Its job: to make sure the Air Force's massive fleet of transport aircraft has safe places to take off and land in areas known as forward operating bases.

The men and women of the 615th Contingency Response Wing head to remote areas around the globe – sometimes just hours after those areas have been taken from enemy hands – and quickly construct military airports that can accommodate cargo aircraft such as the hulking C-5 Galaxy, the newer C-17 Globemaster III and the venerable C-130 Hercules.

And when the unit isn't preparing or refurbishing airstrips for military purposes, its members help with humanitarian relief efforts or head to areas hit by natural disasters around the world.

Regardless of destination, when members of the 615th get the call, they are out the door in a hurry.

The entire wing – one of only two in the Air Force – consists of 650 people, but 113 specialists in a first "ready group" stay packed and prepared around the clock so they can be airborne in 12 hours or less after getting an assignment.

"In the first hours we're on the ground, we're moving pretty rapidly," said Staff Sgt. Jonathan Taylor.

"We're checking the hardness of the soils to make sure they can withstand the weight of the aircraft that we're going to be bringing in," Taylor said. "We're getting the electronics and radios up and operating. There's a whole list of stuff that has to get done quickly."

Taylor, a Sacramento native, said being a part of the wing is both a challenge and a point of pride.

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