TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE — It is hard to beat lonely Ascension Island in the middle of the South Atlantic as a remote location.
But that was where 9th Air Refueling Squadron commander Lt. Col. Thad Middleton had to go in early December after he got orders on the afternoon of Dec. 5.
His orders were to run that part of support operations to get President Barack Obama to South Africa to speak at the memorial services for South African leader and civil rights legend Nelson Mandela.
Ascension Island is just a 34-square-mile dot located 1,400 miles east of South America and 1,000 miles west of Africa. It is part of the British Overseas Territory of St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan de Cunha.
Its importance is its location and the existence of an airfield capable of supporting large aircraft such as the C-17 Globemaster and the KC-10 Extender air tankers to refuel Air Force One and its support aircraft.
Middleton worked with a task force that included a contingency response element from the 621st Contingency Response Wing. That turned the airfield into a major support hub to move the president to and from South Africa.
Middleton described bringing in six KC-10s and setting up a stage for the movement of C-17s to handle the flow of presidential support for South Africa as “quite a feat.”
“It happened within 48 hours between the time of first alert and the first aircraft moving through. To spin up aircrews within such short notice speaks highly of Air Mobility Command,” Middleton said.
The contingent got little rest except for the short lull while the president was in South Africa before he returned to the United States.
“We had to do a lot of coordination with the Royal Air Force (which ran the airfield),” Middleton said of what he described as “a delicate dance” to ensure all those extra aircraft didn’t hit anything on the airfield’s limited ramp space.
“We had all on-time takeoffs, no delays,” Middleton said of the task force’s achievement.
It helped that this was Middleton’s second time on the island. He was mission commander in July 2013 when Obama made a six-day official state visit to Africa. That time, the contingent included 33 airmen from Travis.
Middleton said the airmen making the missions happen were impressive with their professionalism and dedication to making sure everything went right.
“It is motivating to lead such airmen,” Middleton said. “It is the airmen who made this mission happen.”
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.