BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq—Pilots are only the most visible tip of the 122nd Fighter Wing, which landed in Iraq in January for a 45-day deployment that ended last week.
Medical, maintenance and other personnel make up the bulk of the U.S. wing's largest deployment—about 400 airmen—since 1961, when it was sent to France during the Berlin Crisis.
And the pilots are quick to point to the wing's largest component, the airmen who keep the jets airworthy, as the heroes.
"They are," pilot Lt. Col. Brian Akins said. "No doubt about it."
The 24 F-16's at Balad flew about 3,000 hours total in November and December, about six times the hours that an active-duty squadron flies in a year when it's stateside. That pace has taken a toll on the jets even more than the flying conditions in Iraq, which include searing summer heat and occasional dust storms.
One recent evening in a massive, concrete-reinforced hangar that once housed Iraqi jets, four American airmen swarmed over a floodlit F-16. The 200-hour maintenance check on the jet's Pratt & Whitney engine would take them and their shift replacements eight to 10 hours.
As three airmen unscrewed metal panels to get at the engine's electrical, mechanical and hydraulic innards, Technical Sgt. Van Ripley, 42, of Convoy, Ohio, disassembled part of the engine's afterburner. The veteran of six overseas deployments said performing the maintenance in Iraq was no different from getting it done in Fort Wayne, Ind., except for one thing: "You just don't go home to the wife."
Another task for the 122nd Fighter Wing is for pilots to fill eight-hour shifts as the "supervisor of flight" in the base's control tower. As the "pilot in the control tower" and expert on the workings of aircraft, the supervisor of flight consults with airmen in the tower and elsewhere to help all types of aircraft take off and land safely.
If an aircraft is running low on fuel or struggling with a mechanical problem, for instance, "that's where I come in," said Lt. Col. Craig Ash, 45, of Fort Wayne, the supervisor of flight one recent day. "We've got numerous checklists and procedures to follow if we run into something like that."
The airmen controlling the base manage a wide array of aircraft, not just F-16's.
Any day can see the military's largest aircraft—the cavernous C-5 Galaxy transport—to one of its smallest—the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle—and everything in between coming and going. In addition, the U.S. Army has about 200 helicopters—including Apaches, Black Hawks and Chinooks—based at Balad.
"We are the largest, busiest aerial port operation" in Iraq, said Brig. Gen. Frank Gorenc, noting that each month as much cargo and five times as many people move through Balad as through Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. "We're moving lots of stuff here."
In fact, airmen at Balad keep track not just of everything coming onto and going from the base but also of all military aircraft in Iraq. Radar antennae at the base scan the entire country, providing a complete image of everything in the air at any time to a half-dozen airmen working in two bus-sized containers crammed with high-tech equipment.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-AIRFORCE