PAPA AIR BASE, Hungary -- At this small, bare-bones, communist-era airfield located in the Hungarian countryside, midpoint between Vienna and Budapest, American Airmen are writing a dynamic new chapter in multinational cooperation and flight operations.
Airmen assigned to the Heavy Airlift Wing at Papa AB work side by side with military personnel from 12 nations to provide critical cargo capability around the world with a fleet of three C-17s. While a flying unit comprised of 12 different nations may sound infinitely complex, according to the wing commander, it allows them to combine resources and share operational experiences between partners.
"Our mission is to fly strategic airlift for the 12 nations that are members of the Strategic Airlift Capability Program," said Col. Keith Boone, Heavy Airlift Wing commander. "Our reason for being here is really to help enable some of the other nations that otherwise couldn't have this capability. So building partnership capability is our mission ... and we get a byproduct of 1,000 hours of C-17 missions and we learn a lot as well."
Established in 2009 as the first non-NATO multinational flying unit in the world, Papa AB is home to 40 U.S. Airmen. The concept of a multinational unit actually spans more than 30 years, pioneered by the E-3A Component (NATO AWACS) at Geilenkirchen Air Base, Germany. Later, nations not a part of NATO were requesting cargo capability, and a new framework was developed.
Twelve nations pooled resources to buy and share C-17 aircraft over a period of 30 years. NATO members include Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, the United States and partner nations include Finland and Sweden. In the end, the arrangement works much like a timeshare where nations are allocated flight hours in accordance with the amount of money they pay into program.
Since C-17 operations began in 2009, the wing has flown more than 500 missions, transported more than 29,000 passengers and delivered more than 22,000 tons of cargo and supplies, with 80 percent of the cargo going to Afghanistan in support of the International Security Assistance Force.
Additionally, the wing participated in cargo missions to Iraq, Haiti, Uganda and also repatriated the remains of Polish President Lech Kaczyinski and other officials who died in a 2010 airplane crash in Russia. They also support troop rotations and sustainment operations and the capability will become even more critical in the months and years ahead as nations begin to withdraw from Afghanistan.
According to Boone, the need for strategic airlift goes beyond Afghanistan operations to include unforeseen requirements in the future in locations like Africa and other places that are quickly reached from Central Europe.
"As nations reduce their forces in Afghanistan it will be important for nations to have an organic, reachable and affordable strategic airlift option that is theirs," said Boone. "The need for airlift will transcend Afghanistan ... I've been in airlift my entire career and there's always more demand than capability."
The U.S. Air Force presence at Papa AB represents approximately one-third of the more than 130 multinational military personnel assigned to the wing. Some Airmen bring their families for a multi-year tour and others come for a one-year unaccompanied assignment and leave their families at Aviano or other home bases.
Papa AB is not like Ramstein or Aviano: there is no base exchange, no commissary, no gas station, no gas cards and no American restaurants. The only U.S. specific services available at the base are a U.S. post office and a U.S.-led flight medicine clinic for routine health exams.
"I extended here because there is so much more to do. My purpose here is to be a provider, to be an NCOIC and also to be a change agent," said Tech. Sgt. Jason McElvaine, NCOIC of the flight medicine clinic. McElvaine explained that upon arrival, he realized there was no ability to track and access medical files digitally.
To improve healthcare for patients, McElvaine worked for more than a year to provide the wing clinic with access to both the Composite Health Care System and Armed Forces Health Longitudinal Technology Application. Besides mission demands and the need to build-up newly established programs and services, there is also an abundance of additional duties that need to be managed by the small U.S. Air Force contingent.
In addition to being the clinic NCOIC and an Independent Duty Medical technician that provides medical care, McElvaine is also in charge of base water testing, health inspections of the dining hall and gym facilities, the Air Force demand reduction program and he is also the wing unit fitness program manager.
But despite the workload, McElvaine enjoys being at Papa AB and the opportunity to work in a multinational environment, "Working here involves community relations and nation relations ... we're always building relationships and making sure we do the right thing each time. The wing to me is one big family: it's not just the Americans, it's everybody together."
When it comes to C-17 operations, the small size of the wing, combined with flying aircraft with crewmembers from different nations, can be a big culture shock for Airmen. For Capt. Mike Boyer, a pilot who has been at the wing for four months, the small size was a big change from his previous assignment at Charleston AFB.
"You don't have the huge support structure that you would have with Air Mobility Command. Here it's on your shoulders to help other people," he said. "I feel there's a lot more ownership of the mission here ... you're not just a part of a big machine but you're an integral part of the mission and literally making it happen."
The multinational composition of the wing provides a unique operating environment that gives new perspective on C-17 operations and the challenges of being an instructor to pilots who are new to the C-17 aircraft and speak English as a second language.
"We get to see 12 different opinions and ideas about the same thing. It's fun and interesting ... I like it," said Boyer. "I'm used to working with C-17 homegrown pilots and these guys come from all kinds of different backgrounds ... single seat fighters, Russian made aircraft and all sorts of strange aircraft that we aren't used to seeing in the U.S. Air Force. As an instructor you have to choose your words to be clearly understood and you have to express complex thoughts on a more basic level," he said.
From the perspective of a multinational crewmember, working at the wing is an interesting challenge that gives perspective into the Air Force and the way we do things in America.
"It's quite interesting and together it's a good mix I think," said Capt. Frederik Nilsson, a Swedish airman who previously worked as a crew chief and loadmaster on a 32-passenger aircraft that operated at a base located near the Arctic Circle.
"It's a give and take also. The Americans have their regulations and we have our regulations (in Sweden) and together we have to create something that works for us here at the Heavy Airlift Wing. That's a challenge but very interesting."
One thing that everybody at the wing seems to agree upon is that the multinational experience Airmen get at Papa AB is more than just a novelty; it's a career changing event that has both personal and professional rewards.
"Coming here and experiencing something outside the mainstream Air Force is so valuable to your career. You become a more well-rounded person ... and you bring a lot more value back to the Air Force," said Capt. Boyer.