Ever since the 1950s, the U.S Air Force has been a key institution around Europe with permanent bases and deployed locations all over the continent. Even before this the 'friendly invasion' of the Second World War caused the American military to be a prominent feature in many places. Today (despite far fewer permanent bases) that red, white and blue footprint remains as strong as ever with key installations in the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy as well as a vast number of deployed locations. In April 2019, I had the chance to head out to Germany in order to visit Ramstein and Spangdahlem Air Bases and find out more about their missions.
Ramstein Air Base opened in 1952 following three years of construction as part of a collaboration between Germany, France and the United States with help from various European nations including Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece to name but a few. Today it is home to the 86th Airlift Wing as well as the Headquarters of US Air Forces in Europe - Air Forces Africa (USAFE-AFAFRICA) and the US Third Air Force. Not only this, but Ramstein also houses NATO's Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). Reflective the huge joint effort involved in constructing the base there is a huge multinational presence there even today. Located only 135 kilometers from Frankfurt; Ramstein is a colossal base.
Whilst in Germany, I visited the 86th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron (AMXS) 'Blue Knights' at Ramstein as well as the 52nd Ammunition Squadron (MUNS) stationed 125 kilometers away at Spangdahlem Air Base. Both units provided a close-up look at their equipment as well as an insight into their operations. This article focuses on the Knights and C-130 maintenance.
The 86th AMXS are the unit responsible for ensuring the serviceability of the fleet of C-130J-30 Hercules aircraft based at Ramstein. The C-130's are flown by the 37th Airlift Squadron (AS) 'Blue Tailed Flies', however are looked after by the Blue Knights. This unit is fully mobile and will deploy alongside the flying squadron to provide the best possible operational capability for the wing. This involves repairing damaged or broken aircraft, washing them and servicing them to make sure they are always fit for flight.
The Blue Knight's motto
is 'Salvus Tempori Firmus' translating to: 'Safe, Timely, Reliable' reflecting how the unit is versatile and can provide aircraft serviceability safely, quickly and that the unit will always provide well.
Ramstein houses a total of fourteen permanently assigned C-130J-30 aircraft which are used in an airlift role to support missions in the European and African theaters. Their mission sets vary from cargo haulage to Passenger (PAX) movements to Aero-medical Evacuation flights (MEDIVAC). The Blue Knight's mission is to make sure there is always an aircraft to complete any mission the 37th Airlift Squadron are assigned within the time frame available.
Each Hercules stationed here is assigned a Dedicated Blue Knight's Crew Chief and assistant (DCC and ADCC) who are responsible for their own airframe. They will make sure their aircraft is in a state fit for flight and that any required maintenance is carried out in a timely manner, the 86th AMXS team will be called on by a DCC to conduct this. These jobs can span from cracks in the airframe through to a routine propeller change.
The C-130J-30 is a variant of the C-130J Super Hercules operated by a large number of air arms around the world including the Royal Air Force, Italian Air Force and French Armée De L'air. The -30 indicates that the aircraft has a fuselage extension of 15 feet, providing additional space for cargo (approximately two pallets worth) making the aircraft fully optimized for any load. This example of the Hercules is operated by almost every USAF Major Command (MAJCOM) with the J-30 being flown by Air Mobility Command, Air Force Reserve Command, Air National Guard and Pacific Air Force squadrons as well as in USAFE-AFAFRICOM.
One tasking that belongs to the Ramstein Herks is to provide a quick reaction capability to support any mission within their theater of operations; this involves having two aircraft are assigned to this role at any one time and are completely fit for flight to the point where the flight crew can simply 'get in, start up and go'. In the time our guide has been stationed at the base, she said that this capability had only been used twice. Nonetheless, it is a crucial aspect of the mission here enabling the US Air Force to fulfill the vision that '[they] answer the call of others, so that they may prevail'. Typically an aircraft will spend around two weeks in this role, meaning the Blue Knight's certainly have a mammoth tasking in ensuring the assigned tails are always good to go.
The 86th AW have various maintenance facilities that can contain their assigned aircraft to keep them out of the elements when undergoing maintenance. Within the Blue Knight's mission set the tasks of painting and washing the aircraft are included, the above images show C-130J-30 16-5840 in the hangar used for this, receiving some new markings. 2019 is a huge year for airlift heritage being the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in which huge numbers of C-47/DC-3 aircraft released paratroopers over the Normandy beaches as part of Operation Overlord/Neptune. The 86th Airlift Wing have subsequently produced six commemorative Hercules' for the events that will be taking place in celebration of this anniversary. When they are all completed the aircraft will carry black and white invasion stripes at the rear of the fuselage and on the wings (top and bottom) as well as a large 'Whiskey 7' on the port side of the aircraft. This process took a large amount of approval and effort in painting and re-weighing the aircraft - it is also important to note how these aircraft make up just under half of the 86th Airlift Wings Hercules fleet. The painted aircraft will also make up a contingent of one of the events between May and June 2019 for the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day landings.
37th AS/86th AW D-DAY PAINTED AIRCRAFT:
Aircraft marked as * are unconfirmed
C-130J-30 08-8601/W7 '86th AW'
Aside from the direct aircraft side of Herk Maintenance, there is a number of 'back shop' facilities involved in the mission. The 86th Maintenance Squadron (MXS) are able to produce parts and equipment to assist the Blue Knight's in making sure there is aircraft are ready for flight. One crucial example of this is the sheet metal unit which is able to produce almost any airframe parts to patch up an aircraft, this is something of a luxury for a homebase, however. When in theater, the maintainers will often find themselves in challenging situations where parts are sparse or totally unavailable whilst an aircraft still needs to get off the ground.
The guys we spoke to really enforced the idea that they frequently have to problem solve and improvise to keep the birds in the fight. This has in the past involved using the likes of gaffer tape to seal leaks as well as some more unlikely fixes such as using cardboard boxes to fill in holes. It proves that the maintenance world can be a huge challenge whilst being extremely rewarding when a mission is completed on time.
The 86th AMXS are truly a formidable force in the Herk world, providing USAFE-AFAFRICOM with a superior airlift capability able to support missions in and around Europe and Africa as well as globally in deployed locations.
...'You call we haul...'
For more on the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, check back soon for articles on how the event has been commemorated. In the mean time, check out our Facebook page for photos and updates on what Square D Aviation is up to and more information on what is going on in East Anglia!
ALL IMAGES © LUCA CHADWICK ALL RIGHTS RESERVED