Berlin Airlift Had Nothing On This
Nov. 22, 1990
OVER SAUDI ARABIA
In the cockpit of an Air Force transport passing Riyadh at 37,000 feet, the Cars play on the intercom as pilot Robert Thomas explains the mysterious ribbons of light streaming into the desert darkness from the Saudi capital. "The Saudis don't worry about wasting energy -- all their highways are lit up," says Thomas, a 28-year-old captain from Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino. "It's actually easier to find your way around up here at night. In the daylight, it's all brown and hazy."
When the glow of Riyadh slips under the right wing, a call is placed to the Navy ships that have tracked the C-141 since it crossed from Egypt over the Red Sea. A lamp flutters green on the console, proof that the jet's silhouette is being "painted" by friendly radar. "This is a very bad place to be flying around if you're not talking to somebody," Thomas says, stating the obvious. On his last mission to Saudi Arabia, a controller broke the news that an unidentified plane was flying behind him. "It was unnerving," he says. "I still don't know who it was."
This trip ends, uneventfully, an hour later at an airfield in eastern Saudi Arabia. It is almost 3 a.m., but crews quickly unload the cargo -- more than 30,000 pounds of mail for American troops. By dawn, the empty C-141 is back in the air, bound for Europe.
The mission was another successful delivery in the biggest military airlift in the history of the Air Force. More than 5,500 flights like this have brought troops and cargo into the Persian Gulf region since Operation Desert Shield was launched on Aug. 7. The Military Airlift Command said it has carried 195,000 troops and delivered 189,000 tons of weapons, mess-hall meals, mail and equipment needed to support an American military operation in a forbidding desert. Most of the missions have landed at this airfield swept by winds off the gulf, not much farther from the Iraqi troops in Kuwait than Los Angeles is from Las Vegas.
British and Kuwaiti fighter jets scream skyward as the transports are unloaded, as many as five an hour. Crews push to get the big planes safely off the ground as quickly as possible. The operation has become routine, but it still takes three hours to turn around a C-141, most of which leave here empty.
By the sixth week of Desert Shield, the effort already had surpassed the 1948 Berlin Airlift in intensity, according to the Military Airlift Command. During the Berlin Airlift, which broke a Communist blockade of that city, planes flew 697 million ton-miles (one ton of cargo flown for one mile). As of this week, more than 1.5 billion ton-miles had been flown under the aegis of Desert Shield. "We're probably doing more airlifts over a longer period of time than ever in history," said Col. William Taylor, who was deployed from Travis Air Force Base near Vacaville to direct the transport operation in and out of eastern Saudi Arabia.
After the initial wave of troops and supplies arrived, the pace slackened for a few weeks. But now the flight line here is busy again because of the Thanksgiving visit by Bush and the arrival of additional American troops from Germany and reserve units activated in the United States. "It's picking back up," Taylor said. "We've gone from 38 planes a day a week ago to 68 planes today."
More than half the flights have been on the venerable C-141, a workhorse aircraft built by Lockheed in the 1960s. But the unloading ramp here is also occupied by giant C-5 transports, the smaller C-130 Hercules propjet and a Federal Express 747 that is part of the fleet of private aircraft mobilized by the Pentagon to support the operation in Saudi Arabia. The scene on the ramp reflects the fast pace and the speed with which Desert Shield was launched. Many shapes of vehicles whiz past the command post in a morning -- Saudi fuel trucks, the military's new Humvee utility truck armed with grenade launchers, even large Chrysler sedans and Mercedes vans rented from local car rental agents. "Most of my ramp guys are running around in Toyota pickups because that's what was available," Taylor said.
The depot here was hurriedly set up Aug. 8 by a small crew from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey and Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. On what once was a Saudi air base they established a semblance of an American post within hours, then sent teams into the desert to set up airstrips where troops could be flown to the front lines. Lt. Col. Doug Cole, who commanded the first contingent, says they found plenty of concrete strips to use as desert runways, but most had to be reclaimed from the shifting sand. "The first days, we had pilots in the sand everywhere," Cole says.
The operation is more refined now. In a makeshift passenger terminal set up in a hangar borrowed from the Saudi air force, troops awaiting hops to distant points in the gulf region sit on vinyl sofas and plastic chairs, watching the "David Letterman Show" and buying T-shirts and concentrated perfume oils from a vendor.
A command post protected by sandbags looks out on the flight line. Graffiti on the sandbags explain how some troops feel about duty here -- slogans such as "Billy Mac Was Stuck Here Aug. 90" and "Oggie Was Here -- Not by Choice!" Inside, on the wall, an aluminum softball bat is mounted under a sign that says: "Stupid Question Answerer." The mood in the command post is strained. Capt. John Laub, in between barking orders to pilots, explains that he left home more than 100 days ago, on an hour's notice, and he is feeling the pressure today. Traffic is heavy, and things are not as going well as they do most days. "We've got some airplanes breaking down, and we're also making preparations for some special visitors," Laub said, referring to the visit by Bush and his entourage.
Outside on the flight line, an Air Force crew is unloading a C-5 that arrived from Europe with pallets stacked high with prepackaged meals. Also greeting the flight was a Marine, ready to take possession of any cargo that rightly belongs to the corps. "At the beginning, the Army pilfered everything," said Staff Sgt. David Gehrlein, the top noncommissioned officer with the Marine detachment on the flight line. "Even now, we seem to get one or two pallets that don't seem to make it. We're here to see that the Marines get their share."
His Marines, all from Camp Pendleton, seem especially skillful at getting by in the desert. They have scavenged enough wood to erect shelves and headboards to give their tents on the airfield some comforts of home. Their recreation tent, dubbed Club Camelot, is stocked with cases of soft drinks and boxes of Turkish apples. With the nights growing colder, they also have found a way to avoid waiting in line for dinner at the mess hall: They fill sandbags for British air crews and other units in exchange for fodder for their makeshift barbecue. "We swung a deal with the Brits for some steaks tonight," Cpl. Andy Donnelly said.
Not all the materiel delivered into Saudi Arabia has come by air. Most of the tanks and other heavy equipment have come by ship. Beyond all the troops who have been flown in -- mostly on civilian airliners under military control -- the airlift also has been the lifeline for special requests to make the days here more livable.
"About a week after we got here, a C-141 came in filled with toilet paper," said Capt. Bob Schwarze, weapons officer on an F-4 fighter jet deployed in the gulf from George Air Force Base. "It made everybody pretty happy."
© Los Angeles Times 1990