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Around the world in 7.9 days

An aerial view of Naval Station Diego Garcia.

An aerial view of Naval Station Diego Garcia. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sarah E. Shaw)

FILE PHOTO -- With its tremendous payload capability, the C-5 Galaxy, an outsized-cargo transport, provides the Air Mobility Command intertheater airlift in support of United States national defense. The C-5 is one of the largest aircraft in the world. It can carry outsized cargo intercontinental ranges and can take off or land in relatively short distances. Ground crews can load and off load the C-5 simultaneously at the front and rear cargo openings since the nose and aft doors open the full width and height of the cargo compartment. It can also "kneel down" to facilitate loading directly from truck bed levels. (U.S. Air Force photo by Brett Snow)

With its tremendous payload capability, the C-5 Galaxy, an outsized-cargo transport, provides the Air Mobility Command intertheater airlift in support of United States national defense. The C-5 is one of the largest aircraft in the world. It can carry outsized cargo intercontinental ranges and can take off or land in relatively short distances. Ground crews can load and off load the C-5 simultaneously at the front and rear cargo openings since the nose and aft doors open the full width and height of the cargo compartment. It can also "kneel down" to facilitate loading directly from truck bed levels. (U.S. Air Force photo by Brett Snow)

WESTOVER AIR RESERVE BASE, Mass. -- If you've worn the uniform you've probably heard the slogan.

"Join the Air Force and you'll travel around the world."

For many Airmen it means a tour in Europe or a mission to Japan, but for one 337th Airlift Squadron aircrew the slogan was literally true.

They left Westover on Sept. 12 on a mission that was supposed to be like many they had flown before.

"It was a standard-channel run, from Westover to Dover (Del.) to Ramstein (Germany) and then down range to the Middle East, to re-supply the troops in the AOR (area of responsibility)," said Col. Michael J. Marten, 439th Airlift Wing vice commander and the mission's aircraft commander.

"We were picking up a recovery team that was going to disassemble a C-130 Hercules that had gone off the runway," said Master Sgt. Ted Malysz, a 337th loadmaster.

They arrived in Southwest Asia ahead of schedule and were looking forward to a planned two-day rest in Spain, Colonel Marten said. "It was a nice schedule and everyone was going to get back on time, which is always one of the greatest things (getting home on time) we like to do."

Fortunately for them, life as an Air Force flyer is full of unexpected surprises. Shortly after they hit the ground, the aircrew received a new mission -- and although they wouldn't be getting their crew rest, they were given the opportunity of a lifetime.

They were asked to fill in on a mission to Diego Garcia, a small island base in the Indian Ocean, about 1,000 miles south of India. The C-5 would pick up parts from a grounded B-1 bomber at Diego Garcia and deliver them to its unit in Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. Their new route home would take them to the Far East, across the international dateline and into the U.S. from the Pacific coastline. The routine mission turned into a flight around the world.

"The aircraft commander got us in a huddle and asked if anybody had any heartache with staying out a few extra days. In characteristic Westover style, everybody was all for it. Let's go, let's help 'em out, let's do this," Sergeant Malysz said.

"None of us had flown around the world before," Colonel Marten said. "We took off in the middle of the night, crossed the Indian Ocean in the dark and landed at dawn in Diego Garcia." Diego Garcia is a British protectorate and is home to both British forces and joint U.S. Naval and Air Force contingents.

"It's a small spit of land in the middle of the Indian Ocean," Colonel Marten said.

The island is sometimes called the "Footprint of Freedom" because of its geography, resembling a massive footprint from the air. It's a narrow strip of land that rises only a few feet above the surface of the ocean and runs in a horseshoe shape around a 13-mile-long lagoon. It was used extensively as a staging point for aircraft Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The crew had a few hours to explore the base, but turned in early, Sergeant Malysz said. "We had a very early wakeup-call," he said, "We went out to the aircraft and loaded everything up for an early morning takeoff."

The mission continued east, flying over Indonesia with an unexpected stop in Utapao, Thailand. "We were supposed to continue on to Guam, but there was a remnant of a typhoon out in the South-China Sea," Colonel Marten said. "We got there in the early morning, the airport was right on the edge of the water -- it was quite beautiful."

The airport is southeast of Bangkok along the Thai coast. Utapao was a staging point during the Vietnam War for B-52s participating in major bombing operations over North Vietnam, including Westover's own 99th Bomber Wing, which deployed its B-52s there a generation ago. It now serves as a forward operating base for military aircraft supporting combat operations in the War on Terror and the war in Iraq.

"There were no hotels near the base, so we were bused out to Pattaya beach, which is about 45 minutes from the airport," Sergeant Malysz said, "the scenery alone was fantastic. The side (of the hotel) I was on was facing the sea and there were islands with mountains in the background. They had traditional old-style fishing boats on the water. On the bus ride out I did see a couple of areas where they are actually still using elephants to perform construction work, moving logs. It was unique to see that firsthand."

"The next day we departed Utapao and we flew to Andersen AFB, Guam for a refueling stop," Colonel Marten said. "We were there in the middle of the night, like we always are, in a driving rainstorm."

"It was just a phenomenally huge expanse of concrete," Sergeant Malysz said, "Even without any airplanes based there it was impressive to see . You can only imagine what it was like when all of that activity was going on during the 70s."

The airfields in and around Guam were an invaluable military resource during the Second World War. It was the only populated U.S. territory to be occupied by the Japanese, but was liberated in a major naval operation to recapture the Mariana Islands. The Mariana Islands were used by B-29s to provide heavy bomber support for the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific and to attack the Japanese mainland. Tinian, one of the Mariana Islands, was the launching point for the Enola Gay's atomic strike on Hiroshima.

The base also saw major activity during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Hundreds of B-52s, including squadrons from Westover's bomber wing, pounded the runways as they departed for and returned from missions in Vietnam during Operations Arc Light and Linebacker II. The aircrew remained in Guam for four hours and then left for Hawaii. They arrived at Hickam AFB early the next morning.

"Going to Honolulu is always a pleasure," Colonel Marten said. "I hadn't been there in probably 8 years, but it hadn't changed much. We had diner at the Shore Bird (a popular restaurant for aircrews going through Hickam) and went down to Hale Koa, a military resort right on Waikiki beach."

While they were standing near the aircraft preparing to leave, one of the loadmasters recognized the mountain pass where Japanese bombers had come through in their attack on Pearl Harbor, Sergeant Malysz said. "Those are the big impressions I get on trips like this, relating very specific locations in the world to historical events - to me that is the richest experience in being out there; in addition to the rewards of doing your job and knowing you're making a difference out there."

They departed Hickam for the final leg of their mission at Dyess, Sergeant Malysz said. "We landed there around midnight to offload the aircraft. We brought the unit's (B-1 unit) ground support equipment back from Diego Garcia and left directly to Westover."

Their mission had spanned three oceans in nearly eight-days - flying over the deserts of Southwest Asia and stopping at a remote-island base in the Indian Ocean. From a beachside installation in Thailand to a legendary World War II airstrip in the Pacific - they flew east... and kept flying east until they hit home. When the crew taxied down the Patriot Wing runway on Sept. 19, they had logged more than 54 hours of flight with only four stops for rest, and accomplished a feat that few others have in their lifetimes.

"I think everyone who flies planes wants to do it once in their life," Colonel Marten said. "It was a lot of hard work... but there was some fun involved."

"It's the most extremely rewarding job I've had in my lifetime," Sergeant Malysz said of the loadmaster career. "It has allowed me to travel extensively and see parts of the world I couldn't have seen otherwise. The mission we do is real world, whether it's peacetime, wartime or humanitarian. You feel that you're making a difference in history and the course of world events... and I would recommend it to anybody."