For the second week in a row, aircrews from Dover Air Force Base, in conjunction with additional Air Force units throughout the country, are working to airlift French military equipment and personnel into the West African nation of Mali.
The 3rd Airlift Squadron at Dover AFB contributed two C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft and flight crews, said 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs Officer Lt. Remoshay R. Nelson. The first mission, launched Monday, Jan. 21, delivered an excess of 80,000 pounds of equipment and more than 40 French soldiers, Nelson said.
By Wednesday, the Air Mobility Command, the higher headquarters for Dover AFB, had committed 13 aircraft to the mission, which is overseen by the United States African Command. These also included C-17s based out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nelson said.
As of press time, AMC had flown 28 missions, moving 778 passengers and 696 tons of cargo, she added.
Dover's aircrews went into the operation having to face a lot of unknowns, said Capt. Matthew Hood of the 3rd Airlift Squadron. Hood is an evaluator pilot and commander of the first mission into Mali.
"From crew alert to landing, nothing had been done yet, so we tested everything as we went," Hood said.
Normal missions usually have a cadre of support personnel to pave the way, but that wasn't the case here; everything pretty much had to be set up and operational in one day, he said.
Because they were the first flight in, Hood's aircraft had to stay on the ground for about two hours, although it took the loadmasters, who are in charge of the cargo, only about 15 minutes to get everything off the Globemaster. The rest of the time an assessment team was evaluating the airfield at the Senou International Airport, which serves the Malian capital of Bamako, and which was the staging point for the entire operation.
"The second time, we were on the ground for under an hour and a lot more of the en-route processes had been worked out, which made things faster and easier," Hood said.
The C-17 was packed almost to the limit because planners weren't sure what type of support services would be available at Senou.
"The first flight, we didn't even know how long the runway was or if the instrument approaches would even work until we got there," Hood said. He and his crew took notes on everything and passed that information along to make it easier for crews that would follow.
Like many Americans, Hood knew little about Mali or the insurgents threatening the country. Consequently, he was surprised to find there was a lot going on once he got there.
"Contrary to what I expected, it was busy." he said. "The airfield had a constant flow of aircraft, including military and commercial aircraft from countries in Europe, North America and Africa, all pitching in to help the Malian people," he said. "It was pretty amazing to be a part of such a diverse effort."
Page 2 of 2 - The French government launched its Opération Serval Jan. 14 in response to terrorist threats by an Islamic extremist group, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. AQIM has controlled the northern part of the country since April 2012, and has instituted Sharia, or Islamic Law in the region. It had been on the verge of moving out of its Saharan desert strongholds and into the more populous regions to the south when the French government took action.
Both the Senou airport and the national capital of Bamako are in the southern part of the country.
In comments made Jan. 14, Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta said the operation is in the security interests of all nations and ties in with other efforts to root out Islamic extremism in places such as tribal areas in northwest Pakistan.
"We're going after them in Yemen and Somalia," Panetta said. "And we have a responsibility to make sure that al-Qaida does not establish a base for operations in North Africa and Mali."
Dover aircrews flew the C-17s first to Istres-Le Tubé Air Base, near Marseilles, and then to Bamako.
"Our airmen started deployment preparations within an hour of getting the call from our headquarters, and we haven't stopped since," said Air Force Col. Kevin Oliver, commander of the 818th Contingency Response Group, an emergency reaction force based out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.
As of Jan. 28, French and Malian forces had moved into the ancient town of Timbuktu, pushing AQIM forces into the desert. Residents of the city reported the insurgents destroyed city administration buildings and had torched a library containing manuscripts dating to the 12th century.
At least 11 other countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain, are assisting with logistics and resupply operations for the French army. On Jan. 26, Panetta told French authorities the United States would continue supporting French operations, to include aerial refueling missions. Plans also are under discussion to use American transports to move troops into Mali from neighboring Chad and Togo.