05/06/11 — 916th air crews back home after taking detour in Libya

View Archive

916th air crews back home after taking detour in Libya

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on May 6, 2011 1:46 PM

Full Size


Tammie Ledford hugs her son, Jason Ledford after he comes off the plane. About 20 airmen returned to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base from Spain Thursday.

Full Size


About 20 airmen returned to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base from Spain. The men and women performing the duties of refueling homeward bound servicemen were detoured to provide support for the war in Libya. Dave Shook kisses his son Bill, 4, and wife, Melanie.

They said it was just another mission, a job like any other, but when the last of the 150 or so deployed members of the 916th Air Refueling Wing came home Thursday morning, they were coming having helped make history.

About 20 maintainers and air crewmen were stationed in Spain, helping provide an air-bridge across the Atlantic, when they were told their mission was changing -- they would be helping enforce the no-fly zone over Libya beginning immediately on March 19, the first day of the multinational effort.

"We just happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right airplane," pilot Maj. Brad Davis said. "It was an honor to be part of night one into Libya."

Davis, who as a civilian lives in Greensboro and owns a chain of nutrition stores in western North Carolina with his wife, explained that while being picked to be part of international coalition enforcing the no-fly zone was part luck, the fact that they were able to change mission gears at such short notice was due to the time and effort they put into preparing.

"It's the same thing. It's just tanking and going. You just refuel the plane and then go home," boom operator and fulltime reservist Master Sgt. Lori O'Connell said.

And over the course of the last month and a half, they flew 36 sorties, refueling anywhere from one to 12 jets at a time, pumping about 1 million pounds of fuel.

"That's a lot of fuel," she said.

But the mission wasn't without its challenges. While procedurally the act of refueling was routine, Davis said, there were some issues involved with refueling planes from 10 different countries, including France, Denmark and Norway, among others.

"It did present some challenges, specifically language. Everybody was speaking English, too, but with different accents," Davis said. "But when you have the same goal, you find a way to get the mission done, regardless of the challenges."

But on Thursday, that mission was in the past and all that mattered to the 20 men and women stepping off the KC-135R Stratotanker on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base was that their boots were back on American soil and they were back with their families after about two and a half months away from home.

And their families were glad to have them home, too.

For Tabatha Smith, having her husband, aircraft mechanic Sgt. Ben Smith, gone had been trying, especially being five months pregnant with three kids at home ages 2, 5 and 8. On Thursday, the oldest two were in school in New Bern while the 2-year-old, Ethan, came with his mom to welcome his daddy home.

"Daddy's home," she told him as the plane opened. "It's been challenging, especially when you're one person trying to get everybody to soccer practice, school functions and working. It's difficult."

Staff Sgt. David Shook of Dudley said he was glad to be home, too, as he hugged his wife, Melanie, and son, Bill, 4.

"It's good to get home," he said.

And it's the families like them, Davis said, that make what the reservists do possible.

"It's not just the war fighters supporting operations in Libya. You've got families from all across the U.S. These families are all part of this as well," he said. "If we didn't have the support back home, we couldn't do our mission overseas."