Partner Airlift

  • Published
  • By Bennie J. Davis III
  • Airman Magazine

Master Sgt. Brandon Nicely has a unique drive to work. Each morning, driving through the gates of the Hungarian Defense Forces Pápa Air Base, Hungary, he takes a trip back in time.


Aging Soviet trucks sit behind faded, mangled fences and fighter aircraft and radar sites, reminders of the Cold War, fill the base’s heritage park.

“You can feel the history. I literally drive down an old taxiway previously used by MiG fighters and pull up to a new multi-million dollar complex for work,” Nicely said. “Pápa AB is an interesting contrast of the latest in technology and innovation surrounded by a Word War II feel and terrain.”

Nicely’s drive isn’t the only unique part of his day, though. So is his job.

He’s the superintendent of wing administration for the Heavy Airlift Wing (HAW), which is part of the Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) program – a multinational mission in Hungary that is the first non-NATO unit of its kind – that uses C-17 Globemaster IIIs to take cargo and equipment in support of military efforts throughout Europe and the Middle East.

His team of three helps to manage 146 personnel and advise commanders and national representatives of personnel issues, while managing a $26.4 million manning budget.

The HAW is the operational organization of the SAC, an agreed 30-year consortium comprised of 12 partner nations — the U.S., Norway, Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Sweden and Hungary — who combined money and resources to purchase three C-17s and then fly, maintain and schedule the aircraft as a team.

SAC nations have access to 3,165 annual C-17 flight hours produced by the HAW. How many hours each nation flies is determined by the amount of money they contributed to the program. However, since Hungary is the host nation, each C-17 is registered and flagged there and bears the tail insignia of the SAC home base, HDF Papa Air Base.

“There may be one name on the tail, but it represents a mix of nations and shared sense of pride for everyone at the HAW,” Nicely said.

This pride is translating into numbers, too. As of 2016, the SAC C-17 fleet has flown over 18,000 hours, over 1,400 missions, delivered over 120 million pounds of cargo and carried over 76,000 passengers since 2009.

Being a football fan, Nicely likens the partnership to a professional sports all-star game.

“All these different militaries coming together, each nation in different uniforms, working as one team. It’s a really interesting dynamic,” Nicely said. “Each military isn’t here for their own purpose, they are here for the Heavy Airlift Wing mission and they all work as one.”

For Nicely, learning the cultures and customs of his teammates is one of the most rewarding parts of the job. He’s had supervisors from Norway and Sweden and coworkers from the Netherlands and Finland. However, everyone in the HAW speaks English; if they all wore the same uniform it would be hard to tell the unit was a multinational one.

The HAW consists of the command staff and three squadrons – Command and Control, Heavy Airlift and Logistical Support.

The Command and Control Squadron receives operational requirements from the SAC and transforms them into mission tasks.

The Heavy Airlift Squadron is the first and only multinational C-17 operations squadron. Flight crews are trained and capable of performing the entire spectrum of air-land and airdrop missions.

Each mission strengthens partner-nation co-operation as every crew is a mix of personnel from the participating air forces.

“Pilots assigned to the HAS, not including the U.S. Air Force, are generally stationed here for four years and when they leave here they are experienced aircraft commanders,” said Royal Netherlands Air Force Lt. Col. Peer Geelen, the HAS commander.

This is accomplished through an intense training program at the HAW and includes a flight training course and simulator time at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma.

The Logistics Support Squadron supports the loading and unloading of personnel and cargo through the aerial port, maintains the safety of aircrew flight equipment for life support and manages the maintenance supply chain with the Boeing Company, which performs nearly all maintenance on the C-17s.

“All three squadrons are located in one building. It reminds me of the interaction and the camaraderie of large Air Force squadrons,” Nicely said. “We work together, play together and we have a lot of fun getting the mission done.”

The HAW is housed in the SAC hangar complex, a nearly $40 million state-of-the-art facility completed in 2016. It’s the only dedicated C-17 hangar in Europe and it provides a permanent infrastructure for the HAW and the SAC.

For the nearly 50 Airmen stationed at Papa, their living arrangements are as unique as their jobs.

Airmen are allowed to take their families with them if they desire, but there is no base support — no on-base housing, no commissary, no base exchange, not even an on base gas station.

Airmen and their families are totally dependent on the local economy.

Captain LeRoi Edwards and his wife, Casey, didn’t know what to expect when receiving orders to Pápa AB. After “Googling” the air base and town, they learned they would be joining the small population of nearly 32,000.

Edwards, the air movements officer and officer in charge of the Aerial Port Squadron, requested a tour in Europe after a short-tour assignment in Korea kept him and his wife apart for a year.

“When you turn off the highway you quickly learn this is small town, Hungary,” Edwards said. “You are surrounded by farmland, but the town is pleasantly adequate with amenities. It’s definitely a different way of life.”

Casey said after quitting her job and leaving the San Francisco area, the biggest challenge was adjusting to a new pace of life

“It’s all about slow meals, slow eating, talking slow and nobody is in a rush,” Casey said. “For me it was a hard switch to stop rushing myself and adjusting to more European lifestyle.”

This small-town atmosphere produces a strong sense of community between the Airmen and families stationed at Papa.

“It’s nice to have such a welcoming community as my first base as a spouse. Everyone here is inclined to help each other,” Casey said. “When my husband hurt his back my friends were ready to help us out with meals and supplies and anything we needed.”

Travel is another perk and being centrally located in heart of Europe has allowed Edwards to see friends stationed around U.S. Air Forces Europe and take weekend trips to Romania, Slovakia, Austria and Croatia.

Edwards loves the job and the people he gets to work with at the HAW, too. When asked why the Air Force, with it’s own fleet of C-17s, would commit so heavily to a mission with only three aircraft, he says the answer is simple.

“First, the Air Force’s main priority is its people and the personnel assigned to the HAW will never have an opportunity like this anywhere else in the world,” he said.
“Refining our leadership capabilities with our 11 partner nations is an experience that is invaluable to everyone here.”

He adds, that while these C-17s belong to the U.S. Air Force, they are not assigned to combatant commanders and can be called upon to provide quick relief on a multitude of missions.

Edwards also points out that while the Air Force participates in a lot of multinational exercises each year, learning from and working alongside partner nations at Pápa AB is no exercise – it’s life.

“The problems we have to solve together here each day are not Band-Aids for a two week exercise, they are bridges to groundwork for the future of our nations,” Edwards said. “Unlike multinational exercises where there are U.S. objectives, at the HAW there are only wing goals and opportunities.”

After work, Nicely and his family stroll through the town center of Pápa. The Baroque architecture and towering dual clock steeples of the Saint Stephens Church provide a picturesque backdrop as the sun sets behind them.

“It took some time, but I did come to appreciate living here in Pápa,” Nicely said. “I’m going to miss it, but most of all, I’ll miss the people.”

He and his family will soon be on their way to their next Air Force adventure, but Nicely hopes opportunities like this one won’t just be a thing of the past.