(Note: Written April 2003 from RAF Fairford, England, UK; story and photo by me)
Royal Air Force Fairford is a lot like Sundance, the small town in Utah where Robert Redford snuggles with thousands of his closest Hollywood friends each year. Sundance exists to screen new movies, strengthen the celebrity mutual-admiration society and draw high rollers who bring in their fast cars, fat wallets and fake swagger.
Fairford, nestled in south-central England, also draws thousands, but not on a regular basis. Rather, when duty calls as it did for Operation Iraqi Freedom, thousands of close-knit airmen bring their fast bombers, fat training folders and real blue-suit swagger to put bombs on target and win wars.
From February to April, Fairford became an anonymous “forward-deployed location” for B-52s that flew 120 missions over Iraq. By most, it is called a “turnkey” operation. The DOD turns a figurative “key,” and a 9,997-foot runway, more than $90 million in renovations and a multitude of resources come to life. All of it sat idle since Operation Allied Force four years before, managed by the 424th Air Base Squadron.
“I liked to call this place ‘Mayberry, RAF,’” said Tech. Sgt. Jim Calbert, the air base squadron’s unit training manager who arrived just as Allied Force ended. “It’s so close and everybody knows everybody else. It was also very, very quiet.”
Less than three weeks later, the place teemed with more than 1,200 airmen from bases around the globe and enough bomber firepower to obliterate 100 regimes.
Much like Sundance’s hotels and motels, Fairford’s rooms got packed. Lodging filled 63 rooms, some living four to a room. Contingency dormitories held 20 to a bay. Trailers slept 12 to a unit. Some slept in a hangar on cots and few complained about their digs given other places they could have landed.
Meanwhile, blue buses ran 24-hours keeping the workers moving. The dining hall served an average of 1,916 meals every day. The base exchange extended its hours and hundreds of new arrivals could be seen walking at all hours wearing reflective belts that resembled giant flea collars.
Small-town Fairford had become a big city at rush hour and life had changed in a New York minute.
“I noticed when I went to our BX and there was a line that stretched to the back of the store. It was kind of a novelty at first, but I quickly started doing most of my shopping off base,” Calbert recalled.
Go where the money is
A big part of the phenomenon that transformed Fairford from peacetime stronghold into a wartime bomber group was money, and Tech. Sgt. Mike Hogan was the shylock with the credit card.
As a contracting specialist, Hogan and one other NCO bought everything needed from a $600,000 closed-circuit television system to $7 videotapes. When he added up all 535 receipts, Hogan had spent more than $3.5 million during the contingency.
“When everything is a priority you have to prioritize the priorities,” Hogan said. “We had many masters who were hard to please and meet their mission requirements.”
As Hogan paid the bills, the base itself was under siege. Protesters lined up early and often. Some dared to climb the fence, barge through the front gates and violate British law to get in. Led most notably by a group called the Gloucestershire Weapons Inspectors — which had neither weapons nor official inspectors of any kind — they charged into the breach.
“We aim to interfere with the smooth running of the base by blocking the base entrance,” said protestor Ann Pettit to a local newspaper.
The police forces swelled to more than 300. Local, military and a contingent of Nepalese Gurkhas lined the fences. A Blackhawk helicopter equipped with secret sensors and detection equipment kept watch from above. Other less detectible and more secret measures also pulsed on. Some had nicknamed the place “Fortress Fairford.”
Senior Airman André May, one of the young cops assigned to watch the fenceline, summed it up more directly.
“We’re determined to not allow anyone who hops the fence anywhere near our aircraft,” May said. “If someone does get through, we’re all over them.”
At the height of the protest hysteria Feb. 21, security outnumbered protesters by nearly two to one. More than 20,000 anti-war demonstrators were expected that day. Just 600 showed. About 1,100 guardians behind a locked gate waited as much of the protest energy flowed to London, instead.
Fairford at war
Eight bombers streaking off on the early morning hours of March 21 signaled the moment Fairford entered the war. During 33 days of round-the-clock operations, more than 2,700 bombs and cruise missiles streamed in from local storehouses and got loaded onto 457th Air Expeditionary Group B-52 bomb racks for delivery somewhere over Iraq.
None of it went unnoticed by the world. From the beginning, a half-dozen television crews from Fox News, the Associated Press and others broadcast live takeoffs and landings. Local newspapers kept regular tabs on activities, including the more than 50 protesters arrested trying to get in.
At its apex for Operation Iraqi Freedom, Fairford closely mirrored what it had done for Operation Allied Force four years before. In each case, B-52s were part of the initial strike package, more than 120 missions were flown, and more than 1,000 airmen called Fairford home.
By April 17, however, the Marines rolled into Baghdad and ground forces had taken most of the country. Fairford bombers will still flew one or two missions each day, but they were coming home with their bomb racks full.
Less sorties meant less work. Less work meant more interest in the one question simmering on everyone’s lips: when are we going home?
The answer came April 23 when the 457th Air Expeditionary Group’s redeployment orders got signed. Three days later, following a visit by a Congressional delegation, the fast bombers flew home and all that blue-suit swagger started streaming home. In about five days time, Fairford contracted from more than 1,000 to less than 200 people.
When someone crunched the numbers, Fairford bombers flew more than 1,600 flying hours catapulting more than 3.2 million pounds of munitions and 9 million leaflets into battle. It served more than 116,000 meals to the troops, deterred thousands of protesters and fielded in combat a never-before-used on a B-52 weapon system called the Litening Pod.
As the first high rollers left Fairford, Mission Support Group Commander Col. Larry Johnson couldn’t say enough about the success of Fairford during war.
“Everyone can give themselves a pat on the back for this effort. It was Herculean — monumental. I was proud to be associated with it,” Johnson said during a staff meeting.
Meanwhile, people like services chief Michael Hertlein said the brunt of the work was yet to be done. His team still had to close-up all the contingency dorms, file all the paperwork and get ready for the next battle — whenever it may come.
“I would then like to think it will be quite enough to give my folks some well earned time off and, of course, take some myself — but I doubt it. This is the busiest little base I have ever worked at,” Hertlein said.
England’s version of Sundance saw its sun set. As it did, Calbert reflected on how he and his Fairford teammates handled the sudden rush of military celebrity.
“That’s why our squadron patch motto says ‘Always Ready!’” he said, tugging at the left pocket of his battle-dress uniform blouse. “That’s why we’re here.”