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Sun, Feb 23, 2003

Troop-Carrying Jetliners Flood Rhein-Mein

Civilian Airliners And Military Transports Carry Soldiers Into Harm's Way

Before Sept. 11, 2001, the 726th Air Mobility Squadron at the Rhein-Mein Airbase in Germany turned around nearly a dozen aircraft a day. But in these days of possible military operations against Iraq and its dictator, Saddam Hussein, the average is now 40 aircraft with about 2,200 people transiting the base.

Squadron airmen are responsible for terminal operations. The number of aircraft and people they deal with each day has pegged their overflow meter for several months. Ninety percent of the aircraft are military transports, 75 percent of which are C-17 Globemaster IIIs. The rest are commercial airliners and freighters.

In The Zone

The squadron has never been busier, said 1st Lt. Eric McGreevy, officer in charge of the 726th AMS passenger terminal.

"This is the most hours I've worked in my 13 years in the Air Force," he said. "And most of the airmen here are working like two people."

Working like they are "in a zone," McGreevy said, to keep up with the massive airflow. The squadron had its busiest day last week when its troops met and quick-turned a record 104 aircraft and its more than 3,700 passengers, he added.

"Everyone dropped what they were doing to help," McGreevey said. The squadron commander, admin troops, director of operations and even the staff judge advocate pitched in.

It is a lot more work than New Jersey reservist Tech. Sgt. "Wild" Bill Ciarrocchi ever imagined when he signed up for a six-month tour at this base near Frankfurt.

The work tempo is much busier than back home in New Jersey, where Ciarrocchi -- a Vietnam War veteran -- is a member of the 88th Aerial Port Squadron at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J.

"Most days I don't even have time to grab breakfast or lunch," Ciarrocchi said. "So you adjust."

The unit would be even busier if all the aircraft deposited or picked up cargo at Rhein-Main, but most of the cargo does not come off the airplanes. It stays on board while the troops file into a reception area to wait for ground crews to service the aircraft before the final leg of its journey to Kuwait or some other base in the Middle East.

Set Down For A Meal... Then Off To The Gulf

After a nine-hour flight across the Atlantic, the troops are ready for a break. Inside, tables piled high with baked goods, cookies, coffee and soft drinks -- all courtesy of the United Services Organization and base volunteers -- await them. Last week, Girl Scouts donated cookies to arriving troops.

"It's nice to see people go out of their way to support us," Staff Sgt. Audier Irizarry said. The Brooklyn Marine Corps reservist was bound for Kuwait with a planeload of fellow Marines and sailors. "I bet this is the last bit of hospitality we'll get for a while."

When Air Force transports or commercial airliners full of troops stop at Rhein-Main, Ciarrocchi -- a spry 55-year-old -- and the much younger airmen he works with meet them. It is a job they sweat around the clock to do if they want to keep a leg up on the massive airflow. Sixteen-hour days are common and days off uncommon.

Ciarrocchi's sidekick, Senior Airman John Young, does quality assurance checks on arriving airliners. It is his job to ensure airlines adhere to their contracts with the military, and with the Air Force's Civilian Air Reserve Fleet now on line to help the Air Force, he has more work to do.

Safety First

Last week, Young wrote up several airlines for minor infractions. He takes his job seriously and likes to ensure the troops have clean airplanes and plenty of good food.

"I like knowing I play a role, even if it's a small one, in what's going on in the world right now," Young said.

Working with their Reserve and Guard helpers, the Rhein-Main squadron handles more aircraft and passengers than any U.S. military base in Europe, McGreevy said.

FMI: www.af.mil

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