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Westover pilots help keep forces in Southwest Asia supplied, ready

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM – Two Westover pilots are deployed to the Combined Air Operations Center at an air base on the Arabian Peninsula, where they monitor the status of ongoing missions supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. The CAOC was the nerve center for all U.S. Central Command air operations when the first air strike occurred early March 20, 2003. Cruise-missile attacks and the start of massive air operations with thousands of sorties a day followed this opening strike. By May 2, major combat was over and the stabilization phase of the operation began. (Photo by Ministry of Defence-Royal Air Force Sgt. Gareth Davies)

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM – Two Westover pilots are deployed to the Combined Air Operations Center at an air base on the Arabian Peninsula, where they monitor the status of ongoing missions supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. The CAOC was the nerve center for all U.S. Central Command air operations when the first air strike occurred early March 20, 2003. Cruise-missile attacks and the start of massive air operations with thousands of sorties a day followed this opening strike. By May 2, major combat was over and the stabilization phase of the operation began. (Photo by Ministry of Defence-Royal Air Force Sgt. Gareth Davies)

WESTOVER AIR RESERVE BASE, Mass. -- Two Patriot Wing pilots are deployed to the nerve center of Air Force operations in Southwest Asia where airlift can be a matter of life and death for the men and women they support in combat.

In May, Lt. Col. Jennifer W. Farrelly and Maj. Vernon M. Wegener of the 337th Airlift Squadron began four-month Air and Space Expeditionary Force tours at Central Command's Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Southwest Asia.

Duty in the CAOC compound is not on the front line of the war on terrorism, but those deployed there have the satisfaction of knowing they are directly supporting Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The two pilots are at the center of a massive air operation that encompasses a huge area of responsibility from the Mediterranean shore to the Horn of Africa and more.

Colonel Farrelly and Major Wegener are part of the Air Mobility Division (AMD) team that plans airlift, from take-off to landing, for missions that run the gamut from airlift of ammunition to air evacuation of casualties.

"You have to look at the details—restricted flying at night, fuel availability, diplomatic clearance, threat level. There are myriad factors to coordinate in what would appear to be a smooth-running operation, but is definitely not smooth when you start planning," Major Wegener said.

"The C-130s, in my opinion, are the tip of the spear. There are air drops, air-to-land missions, airlift of everything from beans to bullets directly to the troops in combat," he said.

The two Patriot Wing pilots bring the experience of piloting C-5 Galaxies from Westover into the area of responsibility (AOR) following the Sept. 11 attack on America and the 2003 Iraqi Freedom surge.

In her role as a chief of mobility operations, Colonel Farrelly balances priorities and capabilities to schedule C-130s moving cargo and passengers around the AOR and also coordinates with C-17 schedulers. When a flying schedule gets tangled, it's her call to get it back on track.

Major Wegener's contribution to airlift planning is coordination of diplomatic clearance through U.S. embassies in the more than two dozen countries covered by central command.

"There are different sensitivities, what countries will or won't do, involved in requesting clearances to land or fly over their territory," he said.

Their roles are segments of a complex operation. If an airplane leaves the ground, the active duty, Reserve and Guard members staffing the AMD are part of the mission—providing intelligence to aircrews, crafting tactics for air-drops to reduce combat exposure, coordinating maintenance and scheduling air evacuations.

To do the job, Airmen fill the two floors of the CAOC, a rambling, warehouse-sized building packed with screens transmitting an array of electronic information. Amid the cacophony of ringing phones and beeping computers—a typical desk has two computer screens—AMD Airmen monitor three large screens of information to track aircraft, air-evacuation missions and national TV news.

"It's a hubbub of activity, always busy, but it spikes if the weather turns bad or maintenance issues develop or there's a need to move priority cargo. Things get very dynamic," Colonel Farrelly said.

"We might be watching the national news on the big screen and shortly after see the outcome of news reports. It could be distinguished visitors traveling throughout the AOR or casualties going home," she said.

"Duty in the CAOC gives you a sense of satisfaction. If you are told a mission might have to be cancelled, but you know the cargo has to be delivered and you can make it happen, you end the day saying, ‘we did some good today.' You know you made a difference that day," Colonel Farrelly said.

"It's kind of overwhelming at first," Major Wegener said. "You never get a day off … there's a lot going on, but there's a real sense of purpose.

"Not to be dramatic about it, but we know we have to get supplies to Americans. Because, if we do our job right we know they can come home, and if we don't it can cost lives," he said.

"I've seen few turf battles, no grousing … when there's an urgent request to get something done, people know that at the end of this requirement there is a Soldier or a Marine who needs what you are going to deliver," he said.

"We'd like to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and know we did everything we could—that it wasn't through lack of effort that something didn't happen," he said.

"It's a very rewarding experience coming here because you're helping soldiers who need you. It's one of the most rewarding experiences you can have."