Friday, February 18, 2011
451st AEW gives flags wings to fly
75th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron A-10 pilot Capt. Ryan Hayde prepares to fly a mission over Afghanistan accompanied by American flags. Flags from all countries, sports teams, schools and more may be flown as part of the 451st AEW flag flying program at Kandahar Airfield, but American flags are by far the most common requested. The program is free, but the requester must supply his or her own flag. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Chad Chisholm) Hi-res
by Tech Sgt. Emily F. Alley
451st AEW Public Affairs
2/17/2011 - KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Whether a unique thank you, patriotic souvenir, or solemn reminder more than 3,000 flags have been flown over the skies of Afghanistan by the combined aircraft of the 451st AEW over the past six months.
The wing, through its Operations Support Squadron, carries flags on routine missions over Afghanistan. It's an additional duty that aircrew have willingly accepted and anyone can submit any flag to be flown.
"We've had Boy Scout flags flown along with team flags," recalled Airman 1st Class Joshua Williams, a knowledge operator who is now the manager the flag flying program and whose office is packed with boxes full of American flags.
Lt. Col. Joel Hampton, commander of the 451st AEW Operational Support Flight, acknowledged that part the popularity of the 451st AEW program is that it's free, but members supply their own flags.
"We feel it does a lot for morale. Relatives, friends back home, kids and grandparents," Hampton remarked on the importance of the program.
Senior Airman Dominico Jones, who coordinated the flag flying program for the past six months prior to Airman Williams's arrival, has also heard requests for schools, firefighters, Marines and Canadians. Occasionally he'll get special requests, such as supplying a flown flag to a WWII veteran who's been given a month to live.
"Those I'll take and fly myself," described Colonel Hampton, who is also an A-10 pilot, wanting to ensure the special requests are handled with a personal touch.
For routine requests, flags will wait to fly in the order they were received, which takes about three weeks before being returned. If the flag is requested to fly on multiple aircraft in the 451st AEW catalogue, it may take up to three months.
A large number of flags are requested by soldiers, many on a second or third deployment, said the colonel. Many, he described, credit the A-10 or one of the other 451st AEW aircraft with having saved their lives. When the soldiers drop off their flags and paperwork, they'll sit down and tell their story.
"They'll say, 'I want it flown on the A-10. That was the plane that saved me last time'," he recalled.
Airman Jones was struck by the story of a group of soldiers from a mounted division, who had fallen under attack while on a patrol. The group was almost out of ammunition and being fired on from several sides when a single Airman in their group called in an air strike. Within 10 minutes an A-10 screamed overhead and destroyed the insurgents. Airman Jones claimed each of the soldiers requested flags from the A-10s.
"At times, it can be demanding," Jones said of the program, which has grown larger over the past year. "But the look of appreciation you get, why these flags are important, the stories you hear make it worth it."
Airman Williams, who recently filled the position as Flag Flying Manager, plans to take advantage of it while he's deployed to Kandahar.
"I'm getting a flag flown for my uncle," he described.
Chief Master Sgt. Dean Roberts also requested flags, which he intends as a gift for people who've supported him during his deployment to Afghanistan.
"That the aircrews care enough to be involved with it on their missions speaks volumes," he added. "I appreciate their efforts."
The pilots, Airman Williams has seen, feel honored to carry flags into their planes, "Colonel Hampton likes flying the flags; he thinks it's patriotic."
Williams also doesn't mind the responsibility, or the boxes of flags- which are stuffed into every inch of shelf space in his office- any one of which might be for someone who was saved by one of his unit's aircraft.