FAIRFIELD — Travis Air Force Base launched 22 planes in about 40 minutes Wednesday morning, both as a training exercise and to commemorate the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The first plane, a C-17, took off at 8:46 a.m., marking the time (Eastern Standard Time) that the first of two planes hit the World Trade Center twin towers in New York. This prompted Master Sgt. Taras Bates to recall how he heard about the terrorist attacks 12 years ago.
“You’re not human if it doesn’t touch you, that’s for sure,” he said.
The massive planes moved along the runway to form a line that stretched for thousands of feet, in groups of C-17s, KC-10s and C-5s. Then they took off in intervals of one to two minutes, their engines making a din that prompted onlookers to use ear plugs.
Down the runway a plane headed into a wind of 17 mph. Then the plane took off, rising over the traffic on Highway 12 and over the Potrero Hills and Suisun Marsh. Eventually, the gray plane disappeared into the distant, gray haze hanging over the Bay Area, even as another plane barreled down the runway. And then another. And another.
A large number of planes taxiing in close formation prior to takeoff is often called an “elephant walk” by the Air Force and some Travis officials used this term. But this particular exercise had a special name to commemorate 9/11: Freedom Launch.
The base in July 2012 launched 11 planes in short intervals. This year’s exercise doubled the number.
Other Air Force bases have launched even more planes consecutively. The difference with the Wednesday exercise at Travis is that it involved three different types of planes, each with its own maintenance needs, said Lt. Col. Paul Filcek, deputy commander of the 60th Maintenance Group. Launch only one type and maintenance workers have the economy of scale of being able to work on any plane.
In that context, the 22 planes taking off at Travis appears to have been unique.
“The world hasn’t seen it before,” Filcek said.
Launching this many planes so quickly also tests the base’s air traffic controllers. They have to make sure the exercise doesn’t cause problems in the busy civilian air space of the Sacramento area and Bay Area.
One goal of the exercise is to put stress on the capabilities of the base. Travis Air Force Base must often quickly transport troops and equipment around the world, for both military and humanitarian reasons.
“It’s a max-effort push,” Maj. Bill Kerr said. “We’re trying to get as much metal into the air as possible to ensure our global readiness.”
Residents in Fairfield, Vacaville and Suisun City might well have missed the display, unless they happened to be counting the large number of planes taking off from the base in such a short period of time. The planes did not fly over the cities or stay in the immediate area.
Rather, the planes quickly flew out of sight, one by one. They went off to missions and to training exercises, such as large formation refueling.
Near the runway, though, the exercise proved to be a bracing one for both onlookers and participants.
“It’s exciting for us – off the charts to be able to do this,” Filcek said.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.