By 1st Lt. George Tobias, 65th ABW Public Affairs
/ Published January 13, 2009
LAJES FIELD, Azores -- Airmen at Lajes Field proved to be good neighbors for an Air France 777 passenger aircraft during the week of Jan 4.
On a Sunday evening around 6 p.m. there was a notification from the Lajes Field command post about an in-flight emergency on an Air France 777 aircraft with about 460 to 480 people onboard, which had to divert and land at Lajes Field.
The aircraft lost an engine and was flying with just one engine over the water and made it to Lajes Field two hours after the notification. The disabled engine was the number one engine and it had lost its gear box. The engine had to be shut down because it was inoperable after its gear box went out. "It is not a component that you can just fix," said Maj. Douglas McClain, 729th Air Mobility Squadron commander. "You have to replace the entire engine. It's a 22,000 pound engine that's worth about $23 million."
"We are like a static aircraft carrier," said the Major. "We are the primary divert location for a lot of the major airlines that fly through here, so if something goes bad and they cannot make it anywhere else, they are authorized to divert to this location."
However, once it arrived the local airport was not prepared to handle a 777 aircraft, because the arrival was not at a standard time and they did not have the manning to support the Air France plane. There was a call asking for the assistance of the 729th AMS to help transport passengers from the aircraft, which was parked on the military side of the air field, to the civilian airport. The 729th AMS worked along with the 65th Logistics Readiness Squadron, provided buses and drivers to shuttle passengers off the flight line. Due to a weather warning of lightening strikes within five nautical miles from here, it was imperative to get the passengers off the flight line as soon as possible, said Major McClain.
"This happened about nine months ago, when there was a similar issue where a plane came in and had lost an engine and at that point in time there had been a request for assistance with downloading cargo so that they could fix the aircraft," said Major McClain.
Around 4 p.m. on Monday, there was a call asking for assistance in downloading a spare engine, support equipment and engine trailers off of an inbound 747 aircraft, which was due in three hours. Working with the 65th Air Base Wing Judge Advocate office and with Air Mobility Command chain of command, the 729th AMS was able to get approval within two and half hours to assist with Air France's request for support. Though, due to snow storms in Paris, the aircraft was delayed, and it did not come in until Tuesday.
The local commercial airlines here, which only have lift equipment that can handle up to 15,000 pounds, did not have the capability to support Air France. Without the support of the Airmen at Lajes Field, Air France would have to fly in a loader on another 747 aircraft just to download the equipment.
Routinely military personnel are not allowed to touch commercial aircraft. "The main reason is liability," said Lt. Col. Jeffery Ferguson, 65th ABW JA. "There are provisions that allow us to provide assistance if it is due to an in-flight emergency, to provide minor repair and assistance to aircraft."
Major McClain worked with Air France before any support was provided to get a certificate of insurance and realization that the Air Force would not be held liable for any accidental damage to any of their equipment.
"From the time the plane landed to the download, it was just as seamless as if it was any other C-17, C-5 or C-130," said Major McClain. "My aero port professionals just rolled out, got the brief, took a look at what we got, put together a plan, did a safety briefing, made sure we have the right people and the right equipment and knew what we were doing. The download was just as smooth as silk."
One challenge faced during the operation was the need for a forklift due to the fact that the dolly the engine was sitting on had its wheels folded up for transport so that it laid flat and fit on a cargo floor of the aircraft. Gary Rucks, terminal manager, 838th Transportation Battalion, Azores Detachment, who happened to have a forklift that could lift up to 48,000 pounds, was contacted and the detachment brought the forklift down from the port in Praia to the flight line.
"It was really a rather simple operation," said Major McClain. "It was one that we were lucky to happen to have all the equipment to piece together between two different commands, both Army and Air Force's AMC, to be able to help Air France out."
Because of the support of Airmen at Lajes Field, Air France saved a lot of money; however, everything was done on a reimbursable basis, so Air France will reimburse the federal government for all the equipment that was used and the manpower.
The 65th Operations Support Squadron also provided support to the crews of Air France. The 65th OSS provided a power cart for the 747 aircraft, because when the plane landed the auxiliary power unit on it was inoperable and they need an external power source. With that support the 747 was in and out of Lajes Field in a short amount of time.
"This is one of those opportunities that you don't get at many other locations," said Major McClain. "At Lajes we are guests here on Portuguese soil, and we try and help them out by helping Air France out." This support helps the Portuguese because it maintains this area as a viable location for aircraft to divert in and out of. "It's one of those things that while being isolated sometimes can be a bad thing, but often times it opens doors to opportunities to maintain good bilateral relations with our hosts and other foreign NATO governments."