(To see photos of this event, including the jumbo jet landing on a dirt strip, the deluxe porta-potty, a portable mainframe computer, the cockpit of a KC-10 and our box lunch, go to my blog)
With all of us internet buffs getting such a wide selection of interesting articles in our inboxes each day, why should you bother to read this story -- which is, after all, rather long? Because it is a detailed account of the state of our armed forces' readiness capabilities in case of a natural disaster or terrorist attack here in America -- and also anywhere else on the globe. This is important information to know. Plus I took some fabulous photographs. And also you will learn what a wus I am when it comes to flying and what secret ingredients the Air Force puts into their box lunches.
Several months ago I received a phone message from a public affairs officer stationed at Travis Air Force Base in northern California, asking me if I wanted to go on a six-day trip to Iraq in order to report on one of their med-evac teams deploying there. "You would be leaving from Travis on June 16." Well, yeah, count me in -- except at that point I was already IN Iraq and thus missed the phone call and didn't get to go. But a week later the PAO called me back and asked if I wanted to participate in a one-day training exercise to be staged at Travis on July 17 instead. "It's called Operation Hydra." Yawn. But I signed up anyway -- and it turned out to be really interesting too.
On July 17, 2008, I was supposed to wake up at 5:00 am and trundle off to Travis but the night before that I had gone to my housing co-op's board meeting wherein our current "Six Million Dollar Board" somehow managed to postpone our co-op's annual elections yet again -- elections that would probably have deposed them. So it looks like now we are going to have to either wait until the villagers throw this board out with torches and pitchforks -- or else let the board stay in power, costing our co-op yet another six million dollars, shutting us down permanently and forcing me to start looking for another cheap place to live ASAP.
But after all this excitement at the board meeting, would I still manage to wake up at 5:00 am the next morning? I did.
I'd never been to Travis AFB before but after spending some time at Al Assad airbase in Iraq with its blast wall-and-gravel decorating theme, Travis was the ultimate "Camp Cupcake". It even has its own "Passenger Terminal" -- which isn't just a pre-fab Quonset hut either.
So. I arrived at the front gate, it was cold and windy, and I had no idea what to expect. Would they be giving us name tags? Coffee? Breakfast? And how long would it take before I managed to get lost?
Then me and three other journalists were met at the visitors center by the base PAO and caravaned off to a parking lot where we got on a bus for a tour of the flightline. Impressive. Suddenly we were on a vast runway, covered with whole bunches of massive C-17s, KC-10s and C-130s. "The KC-10 is a great little aircraft," I was told. It didn't look so little to me. "It is used for troop transport." And for transporting us. "Your plane is located at the other end of the flightline, which will give you an idea of how large it is. Travis is one of our larger facilities. We can park almost 90 wide-bodies here. Any questions so far?"
"Er, where's the ladies' room?"
Then we went off to a briefing room and the colonel in charge of the whole mission arrived to tell us all about "Operation Hydra" in depth. What exactly IS this mission about, you might ask. Not a clue. I should have googled it before I came. "Search. Hydra. Travis. I'm feeling lucky." But now we were about to get totally briefed -- as soon as they could get the projector to work.
"We are an air mobility command, aka a Contingency Response Wing," said the colonel, "and you are going to see us in action today. For instance you will be in a jumbo aircraft as it lands on a dirt landing strip." Yikes!
"Why are you going to do that?" asked a journalist. "In order to practice being able to land anywhere in an emergency?"
"Yes. For instance, in Afghanistan this is the routine form of landing facility available." Then the projector started to work, the PowerPoints came on and the briefing began in earnest.
"We are the Contingency Response Wing -- the CRW. We are a small operation, a boutique wing. Very small, very organized, very responsive. In an emergency such as Katrina, we can get there within hours. Our operations include global reach laydown, airbase opening and theater-wide air mobility command and control. We also control in-transit visibility." And this all means what? We were about to spend the day finding out.
"The CRW is expert in packing and delivering cargo to relief areas and also to airbases that have been captured during wartime. Our specialty is 'Rapid Port Opening.'" Apparently they can also tag all their cargo and track it like FedEx. "What is unique about this wing is that it is so mobile." They can do everything that the big Air Force commands and bases can do except the CRW does it all on the fly. They also carry troops into air operations and then come back in and pick them up, "Preparing the joint teams for airlift." And they also track all this stuff too. Their motto is, "Lean, light, first to the fight."