17th Air Force Proves Capabilities With President’s Ghana Trip
By Air Force Master Sgt. Jim Fisher
Special to American Forces Press Service
ACCRA, Ghana, July 13, 2009 Before President Barack Obama could land to an unprecedented reception here July 10, airmen, sailors and Marines were on the ground days in advance to prepare.
Airmen from the 621st Contingency Response Wing on McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., assist aircrew personnel in offloading a presidential limousine from a C-17 Globemaster at Kotoka International Airport at Accra, Ghana, July 8, 2009, as part of the U.S. military support for President Barack Obama's visit to Ghana. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jerry Fleshman
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
More than 150 servicemembers here and more than 1,000 sailors and Marines aboard the USS Iwo Jima came together in the West African country to form a task force to support the president's visit July 10 and 11.
The mission was conducted by 17th Air Force, also known as Air Forces Africa, based at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Seventeenth Air Force is the air component for U.S. Africa Command.
The task force provided aerial port and aircraft maintenance teams, forward communications, medical and helicopter support, and early warning and air domain safety and security elements to support the president's visit, his first to the African continent since taking office in January.
In addition to supporting the visit, members worked with their Ghanaian counterparts to strengthen the partnership between the two nations.
The multiple teams that make up the task force have gelled into a cohesive team, said Air Force Col. Mark Vijums, task force commander.
"When you are supporting the president of the United States, our commander in chief, you deliver your absolute best, and that's what this task force has done," Vijums said. "Everyone has operated with a keen sense of the purpose and scope to ensure our president and all those supporting him have everything they need while in Ghana."
A presidential mission overseas means transporting equipment ranging from the president's limo to the stair truck that makes it possible for him to disembark Air Force One. Scheduling, offloading and maintaining a stream of C-17 Globemasters were crucial in getting the equipment to Ghana and having it in place in time for Obama's arrival, Vijums explained.
Air Force Master Sgt. Ken Duran served as the aerial port team chief during the operation. Deployed from the 819th Global Support Squadron at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., his team has unloaded every piece of equipment needed for the visit. Duran said his team was excited about its first visit to the African continent and about the chance to support the president.
"This is pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us, and something I know I will always remember," Duran said. "We are all very excited, and the Ghanaian people are phenomenal. We've met so many people that are smiling, friendly and engaging. It's been a really positive experience."
While his aerial port team doesn't have all the support they would have while conducting a similar operation at their home base, they are well equipped, both in terms of personnel and resources, to provide complete support to the operation in Ghana.
"This team is designed lighter and leaner and to make sure we can handle everything that arrives on every aircraft. Also, the 17th Air Force folks have been a really big help to us," Duran said.
The task force used the communications capabilities supplied by a team from the 1st Combat Communications Squadron at Ramstein Air Base. Upon arrival, Air Force 1st Lt. A.J. DeLaFuente and his team provided for a range of communications, including Internet, land-line telephone services, network administration and radio.
"We pretty much have a hand in every form of communications outside of the commercial cell phones," DeLaFuente said. "When the rubber meets the road, it's really awesome to see it all working out well."
The communications squadron deploys to set up forward communications at locations throughout Europe, and the team is well versed in overcoming communications challenges outside of the normal base infrastructure.
"This is my ‘A-team,’ the cream of the crop, and that's what they do," DeLaFuente said. He said the team is a mix of qualified technicians from members on their first deployment to experienced experts who have set up similar operations before. But for everyone, this mission is "a pretty big deal."
It was the first forward operation for the lieutenant.
"I'm really thankful to be on a mission of such notoriety with such qualified professionals across the spectrum," said DeLaFuente, noting that in addition to fostering teamwork on the Task Force, the mission also enhanced the partnership with the Ghanaians. "They are going out of their way to be helpful. It's really a pleasure to work with them."
Air Force Master Sgt. Russ Killpartrick agreed that the Ghanaians were eager to work in concert with the U.S. delegation. The production superintendent for aircraft maintenance operations deployed from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., where he is assigned to the 437th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. His team of maintainers has attended to every C-17 touching down here.
"We provide whatever they need, usually filling them up with gas and launching them back out," Killpartrick said. "Everyone's excited to be here. This is the highest-priority mission we could have."
That point was reiterated by the commander, who said that everyone, including sailors and Marines on the Iwo Jima, and Marines conducting security on the ground, acted on that premise.
"Our Marine and Naval components of this team have displayed the highest level of dedication and professionalism, and have instilled confidence in everyone taking part -- they are excellent at what they do and it shows," Vijums said.
(Air Force Master Sgt. Jim Fisher serves with the 17th Air Force public affairs office.)