King Fahd International Airport (KFIA) was still under construction when the Gulf War broke out. Because of it's location, just North of Riyadh, and the already existing runways, it was an ideal staging area for aerial operations. Several airlift and tactical squadrons were stationed there. The primary unit was a group of A-10 tank killers, better known as the "Fahd Squad." As the ground war neared, several C-130 units were moved there to speed up the operations. It was assumed to be safe since months of bombing had destroyed most of the threat and the SCUDs had ceased. Unfortunately most of the other facilities were still lacking. You can guess where this is leading.
The airport layout was typical fashion. All the civilian and support operations were on one side of the runways while all the aircraft and maintenance facilities were on the other. The different aircraft types and units were segregated and the Army and Air Force units were completely separate. The only real overlap was a telephone tent at the civilian end of the runway. I think AT&T had set it up for the troops to call home. You needed a calling card or to call collect, but the huge satellite dish outside sent a very clear signal back home. Since these were the only telephones on the base, we ran buses and gave lifts around the clock. Still, no one minded the 20 minute walk for a chance to call home.
We were still mostly living in tents. However, the shower tents and latrines were much closer and the water was unlimited. I was really happy to be able to take a normal hot shower again. There were also several dining facilities for the preparation of real food. The higher ranking officers even got to live in trailers, complete with private showers. Because we were in Saudi Arabia now, and near a large city, there were other benefits too.
The Civil Engineering unit at King Fahd opened a do-it-yourself woodshop and gave out construction materials. Since I wasn't really needed, activity was slow and the officers were redundant, I spent hours everyday making foot-lockers and wardrobes. Each night I would return to camp and pass them out like Christmas presents. After a couple of weeks every one of my troops had one or the other. Some thought I was great others thought I was an idiot. I was just trying to make life a little better for my troops the only way I could. Still, I wonder how many people brought them home as was souvenirs? I guess I should have signed them or something.
The food was pretty good too. Three dining facilities had been built for the hundreds of construction workers building the airport. Since all construction had stopped, they were converted for use by the military stationed at and passing through King Fahd. Everyday they were filled with soldiers in every uniform imaginable from US military to British to Saudi and others. It was fun to sit with everyone in normal chairs and eat normal food in a building with walls and lights for a change. I even ran into a college ROTC acquaintance who was now flying A-10s (Dan Kolota). Aside from the abundance of curry in the dishes, the only other difference was the amount of Pita bread available. I became a real convert to Pita over toast. Returning to life in the tent after a good time in the dining hall was always a let down.
There was even a hamburger trailer and ice cream trailer, but I was too cheap to spend money when the food at the dining halls was better and free. Still, there was always a line for the freshly grilled burgers.
Of course I'd be negligent if I didn't mention the bomb shelters right about now. We were in a war zone after all. A dump truck unloaded a huge load of sand in the center of the tents. We spend hours filling sand bags and piling them three feet high around the tents. Then we puts pallets on top of the sandbag walls and covered them with several feet of sandbags. Obviously it wouldn't stop a bomb, but it would reduce collateral damage. Every few hours the Scud warning alarms would go off and we'd leave our tents and crawls into the shelters. Since there were only twelve people assigned in each tent and not many people were ever in the tent at one time the shelters were never very crowded.
Of course actually being in the shelter wasn't much better than staying in the tent. And as time passed more and more people got complacent. The bombs had never come near us and a lot of people decided to stay in bed rather that get dressed and walk around the tent to the shelter. Call me an idiot, but I went every time, with my gas mask in tow. I just couldn't imagine getting injured by a splintered piece of wood or something and having to tell that story the rest of my life. Still, since we got plenty of warning, I stayed near the entrance to watch the missiles fly overhead or the Patriot interceptor missiles launch.
Everytime Hussein launched his scud missiles, the battle ship Missouri would start firing just to scare the pants off the troops in retaliation. I swear I felt every shell - I don't know if it was just the noise of the guns firing or the shells landing, but I know they were at least 15 miles away.
Off To Work I GoThe living area was on the opposite side of the runways as the aircraft parking area, which meant a 15 minute ride around the base a few times a day. Being an officer I had my own pick-up truck. Which was nice when I saw it. But most of the time it was lent out for people building things, trips to the phone tents, and sight seeing around the base. So like everyone else, I rode the bus most of the time.
As the bus circled the runways we saw the unlimited rows of Army tents of the troops passing through. The transports would drop them off, they'd camp at the end of the runway for a few days, then march or fly North. There wasn't much left by the time I arrived, but you could see the outline of were the tents had stretched to the horizon.
Once on the other side of the runway, we'd pass through several check points. Nothing serious just a few guards with guns and some concrete slabs to keep any one from racing through. Still, the endless sand and guns and occasional tank reminded you where you were. Next we passed the Army portion of the airfield. Cobra and Apache helicopters everywhere. Helicopter pieces were piled everywhere too.
Next was the A-10 area. Since they had so much live ammo around, they were pretty far back and I didn't see much. Just you run-of-the-mill tank killers and war heroes (smirk).
And Finally I arrived at the airlift area. First we passed through Transient Operations, planes passing through. Since we were in the SCUD zone, most just dumped their cargo and flew away. Still there was almost always a 747, C-5, of C-141 on the ground.
I was working out of three prefab shelters. One for operations and meetings, one for equipment and supplies, and one just to relax in. Since the aircraft were kept in good shape, they sat around most of the time and played cards. Of course, being an officer I tried to keep busy, or at least look busy. I'd inspect the aircraft, try to resolve scheduling and personal problems, and just try to keep moral up. Still, I had plenty of spare time. So I explored the base and got aquatinted with the area and other units.
Next door was the unfinished air terminal. The Army helicopter maintenance had set up shop there like an ant hill. Their equipment and personnel inhabited the parking garage underground for several stories. While they didn't mind me looking around, I definitely felt like I was inside a beehive or something. It was spacious and very cool, and they'd made it quite livable. I wonder what it is like today: probably a really nice building. But I'm sure it cost the Saudis millions to repair the damage and replace what the Army acquired: like the miles of carpeting they used for bedding.
Just up the road was the Mobile Aerial Port Squadron (MAPpers) in charge of loading and unloading aircraft. As near as I can tell, they worked the hardest because there was always something to load or unload. There were dozens of pallets spread-out either having just arrived or prepped for shipment north.
On the other side of our area was the aircrew briefing tents. EVERYTHING in there was stamped secret, but most of the time it was empty and wide open for anyone to walk through. I spent some time getting to know the intelligence officers and learning the layout of forces in the gulf -- really interesting stuff. The direct links to the patriot batteries for early warning was incredible.
Another fun part of King Fahd was the abundance of Sand Dunes and Humvees (Also known as Hummers) the modern day jeeps. Another maintenance officer and friend had his own Humvee. When he was working, he'd let his troops use it to go dune hopping. It was a lot of fun. The motor pool had put in a governor to keep it from going too fast, but it was still an awfully wild ride. If you try hard enough you can roll it over. Of course it costs $30,000 to repair the front end when you do, guess how I know that?
The Start of the Ground War
For months they'd been saying, "Two weeks", but when Colonel Maxwell Bailey called a meeting and announced that the attack was, "immanent" we knew the wait was over.
©2002 Stefan Oestreicher
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Last revised Mar 26, 2002