Bones over Southwest Asia Part I

  • Published
  • By Steven J. Merrill
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
(Editor's Note: Following is the first of a three-part feature about B-1B Lancer crews conducting missions in Southwest Asia following the attacks of 9/11.)

Like a heavyweight champion regaining composure from a sucker punch, America was ready to respond with a volley of its own in response to the horrific events that unfolded Sept. 11, 2001.

Two time zones away from the smoldering aftermath that captured the world's attention, Ellsworth Airmen were busily preparing to answer the nation's call and take the fight abroad as part of what is now known as Operation Enduring Freedom.

The 28th Bomb Wing contributed a significant portion of the heavy bomber capability at the onset of OEF. Four B-1s from the 34th Bomb Squadron - then based at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho - were sent to Ellsworth. There, they joined four Ellsworth B-1s from the 37th BS to make up the 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron that would be operating out of base on an island in the British Indian Ocean Territories.

Preparing the forward base was a feat in itself. Col. James Katrenak, 28th Maintenance Group commander, was a major assigned to the 9th Bomb Squadron at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas in September 2001. On 9/11, he and several maintainers, aircrew members and an intelligence officer were on temporary duty at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The 9th BS was in the midst of a Phase I operational readiness exercise and was launching three B-1s from Texas on Global Power sorties to strike a range in South Korea and then recover in Guam.

"The three 9th BS B-1s were airborne and on the way when the towers were struck," Katrenak said. "They turned around at the first A/R (air refueling) due to no tankers...all air traffic was grounded. We were communicating with our squadron back home, and knew that we were already halfway there if a deployment package was to be sent forward."

Katrenak and others received their tasking a short time later.

"When air traffic resumed, we were on the first commercial jet off Guam headed for Tokyo. We were to meet a KC-10 (Extender) at Yokota Air Base for the flight to the forward location and prepare for deploying aircraft," Katrenak said. "The trip from Guam to Yokota was extremely hectic ... we didn't really have time to get good instructions and had very little idea of the situation back home."

Upon arriving in BIOT, Katrenak and others joined the maintenance detachment to prepare for the huge influx of personnel and aircraft heading that direction. The first air traffic consisted of a C-5 Galaxy landing about every four to six hours carrying max payloads of Joint Direct Attack Munitions -- improved 2,000-pound, global positioning satellite-aided, precision munitions. Katrenak and others prepared small maintenance buildings and the ramp for incoming aircraft, knowing it would be a tight fit. Approximately three days later, the first three KC-10s arrived, with seven more arriving over the next couple of days.

The next jets in were eight B-52 Stratofortess bombers from Barksdale Air Force Base, La. Their maintainers arrived just hours prior. The last jets to arrive were the eight B-1s fully loaded with GBU-31s. The C-5 with all the B-1 support equipment, parts, and maintainers would arrive the next day.

"My small crew caught all the B-1s in a rainstorm, all coming down within a very short window due to the weather," Katrenak said. "The jets were not in great shape after that long flight - I remember one had a shattered windscreen and another came in on three motors."

Fortunately, there would be time to get the aircraft ready before the attacks began.

"I was certainly no different than any other American the day we launched in that I was keenly interested in taking the fight to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, where they lived and on our terms," said Lt. Col. Brian Mead, 37th Bomb Squadron commander, then a captain with two years of experience flying the B-1. "I'll never forget the helpless feeling I had when watching the second aircraft impact the World Trade Center on 9/11. As soon as I raised my landing gear that helpless feeling was replaced with a very focused and aggressive sense of purpose."