FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. - Fairchild Air Force Base's nine year deployment to an air base half way around the world is coming to a close as the last KC-135s assigned to Manas Transit Center returned to base Tuesday.
For nearly a decade, Manas Transit Center, located in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, was a home away from home for 92nd Air Refueling Wing air crews. When airmen got their orders to deploy, it was almost exclusively to Manas, where air crews supported flight operations over Afghanistan.
"I was there and saw first hand many, many paragraphs of exploits written from maintainers doing the impossible to operators providing life saving fuel or providing gas for fighters flying overwatch when Osama bin Laden was found," 92nd ARW commander Colonel Brian Newberry said.
When Fairchild showed up at Manas there wasn't even a hangar where you could get a tanker out of the weather to do maintenance. But Kyrgyzstan's proximity to the battlefields of Afghanistan was so strategic, Spokane based-fliers toughed it out and made improvements.
Every day, Fairchild's tankers would launch out of Manas and then refuel the war planes supporting coalition troops on the ground. These orbiting gas stations in the sky gave fighters more time over their enemy targets and saved American lives.
"The fighters are the most important thing, getting in there with the ground troops, but they know they need us right on station it feels great to be part of that mission and great to be right there to help out when ever we can," Major Steve Gant said.
Gant flew one of the three KC-135s that returned to the ramp at Fairchild Tuesday, and now that the U.S. has lost its lease in Manas, he'll hopefully get to spend more time with his family.
While there were many happy reunions among the returning air crews and their families, it was also a bittersweet reunion as three fellow fliers never made it home. Captains Mark Voss and Tori Pinckney and Tech Sergeant Tre Mackey died in a KC-135 crash 10 months ago.
"We must never forget those that we lost but today, please, please take solace in the thousands of lives saved because we fueled freedom overhead," Newberry said.
Newberry said he expects the cause of the crash that killed Voss, Pinckney and Mackey to be released next month.