February 23, 2014 Updated: February 24, 2014 at 4:02 pm
A group of Peterson Air Force Base airmen became the first airlift troops assigned to Africa on a recent deployment.
The deployment, which ended in January, proved to be one of the busiest in the history of the 302nd Airlift Wing, with relief flights into unimproved fields, the evacuation of civilians in war-torn South Sudan, and helping get federal dignitaries to Nelson Mandela's funeral.
"This is old-school C-130 flying," said Lt. Col. Jason Terry, who commands the wing's 52nd Airlift Squadron.
The wing sent one C-130 plane to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti to support a growing task force dealing with issues including violence in Sudan and Somali piracy.
The wing took on the mission in early September and launched a four-engine C-130 with 30 airmen and a pile of equipment on Sept. 30. In the lumbering transport, getting to the Horn of Africa was a four-day ordeal.
"It's pretty intimate back there," Chief Master Sgt. Jeff Flight, said of the packed flight.
The work involved flying cargo and passengers to destinations including Mombasa, Kenya; Entebbe, Uganda; and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Dedicating a plane to Africa shows a ramping up of U.S. missions on the continent, which include diplomatic relief effort and American Special Forces troops training troops to battle the Lord's Resistance Army, an insurgency that has brought strife to much of Central Africa.
The airmen on the mission come from a wing that has mostly part-time reserve airmen and a core group of active-duty troops.
Maj. Jen Fuller, an operations officer, said the mix of experienced reservists and green active airmen, called a "rainbow crew" in Air Force parlance, brought capability and enthusiasm to Africa.
"There's no way we could do it without rainbow crews," Fuller said.
On the ground in Djibouti, conditions were spartan. Crews worked out of a converted shipping container that became their headquarters for three months. Repair crews dealt with a supply line that spanned the globe to keep their 20-year-old aircraft flying.
On Dec. 18, the Colorado Springs airmen were put to the test.
The 302nd plane and a security detachment was rushed to Juba, the capital of South Sudan to evacuate noncombatants, including American diplomats.
Violence spiked in the breakaway state during a December coup that left an estimated 10,000 people dead in factional fighting.
"There were people lined up and waiting with handfuls of clothes," said Senior Airman Adam Van Horn, a loadmaster who helped pack 78 passengers onto the C-130.
Evacuations are tricky, because panicked passengers can stampede the runway.
Van Horn said a careful plan put fears of trouble to rest. The passengers were escorted a handful at a time and strapped in, while the plane's turbines kept spinning for a quick take-off.
"I felt like we were really well prepared," he said. "It was very seamless."
Terry said Colorado training prepared the crews for the rigors of Africa, and crews got an education on the medical maladies, storms and raging insurgencies that threaten troops there.
"When these guys arrived, the first thing I told them is 'Africa will try to kill you'."
The work in Africa also gave the airmen an education in the work that's expected of a post-war military.
With the Afghanistan war expected to end Dec. 31, America forces are readying for an uncertain world of rapid deployments to brush fire wars, relief missions and support of small groups of advisers.
Flight, a 27-year veteran, has flown missions around the world and in almost every conflict since the 1989 invasion of Panama called Operation Just Cause.
He looked at Van Horn, who survived his first deployment on the African trip.
"They're the experienced guys now," he said.