By DR. ANDREW WACKERFUSS, 521 AMOW HISTORIAN
The COVID-19 crisis entered a new phase in early March 2020, inconveniencing travelers around the world as one country after another closed its borders, commercial carriers canceled flights, and airports turned into holding areas until passengers could find follow-on transportation. Governments around the globe were trying to fully understand the health risks and took measures to protect the general public from the virus.
It quickly became evident that military airlift would be the most reliable means of passenger air travel across the Atlantic, but even this option proved arduous. In a series of unusual events at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, pandemic revisions to entry policies led to personnel having to be temporarily billeted in the Air Mobility Command Passenger (Pax) Terminal.
In the early morning of March 19, 2020, the Patriot Express military passenger rotator arrived at Ramstein from the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. This passenger flight is well known to many Department of Defense travelers as a reliable and cost-effective means of transporting military members from the continental United States to Ramstein Air Base, before proceeding downrange to installations within U.S. Central Command.
For this mission, around 170 passengers disembarked from the aircraft as they normally would. The passengers had already experienced a series of new policies at Baltimore prior to their departure, including travel screening, health questionnaires, and other COVID mitigation restrictions. They expected more of the same upon arrival. However, this policy was not to be the case on the morning of March 19.
Although the Ramstein terminal may be operated and maintained by the Airmen of the 721st Aerial Port Squadron (APS), the largest squadron of the 521st Air Mobility Operations Wing (AMOW), Ramstein Air Base sits on sovereign German soil. This fact means that German authorities still control Immigrations and Customs in accordance with German and European Union immigration law.
Prior to and after March 19, the U.S. Embassy-Berlin put forth extraordinary diplomatic efforts to preserve U.S. forces’ ability to support air transport of military personnel within a rapidly changing pandemic environment. In early March, they had successfully negotiated the entry of personnel who had official orders assigning them to Germany and who possessed a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Status of Forces Agreement card or passport stamp.
Unfortunately, the passengers on this flight were transiting through Germany and were not on orders there; therefore they lacked required documents for entry. They could not officially enter the Federal Republic of Germany, which meant that they could not exit the AMC terminal for billeting and other support services.
These passengers found themselves stuck in limbo. The Ramstein passenger terminal was never designed to house passengers overnight. Its food options are on the outgoing side of the terminal rather than the entry side. It was not designed as lodging in any way, or indeed to be occupied for any length of time beyond what it takes to move through customs. The 721 APS suddenly took up an unexpected challenge to create a makeshift hotel inside the terminal, which 521 AMOW members dubbed the “Casa de Pax.”
The 721 APS and its mission partners instantly moved into action. Maj Mallory Malda, 721 APS Director of Operations, spearheaded the effort, which wound up bringing in all three wings located at Ramstein. The 86th Logistics Readiness Squadron sent hundreds of sleeping bags. The 435th Air Ground Operations Wing (AGOW) provided cots and a volunteer team of group and squadron commanders to personally assemble and stage them. The United Services Organization provided mass quantities of food and toiletries, and the 86th Airlift Wing’s flight kitchen provided boxed meals.
“Maj Malda did outstanding combat-style logistics in the middle of a whirlwind,” said Lt Col Travis Bohanan, 721 APS Commander at the time. “She led a phenomenal combat logistics effort that I haven’t seen outside a deployed environment. Within hours, she had not only sourced all the items we would need but had them actually set up. She, and the partners from the host wing and the 435 AGOW, really led from the front on this one.”
It was clear from the start of this crisis that a negotiated diplomatic solution would take time, and therefore Casa de Pax organizers also had to make a plan for maintaining these operations for days or even weeks— not just for the initial batch of stranded passengers, but for future ones who might arrive on missions already scheduled. Although each group of passengers usually cleared in a day or two, missions kept flowing to Europe as Department of Defense personnel rotation needs continued. Planners from the 721 APS therefore resolved to build a system that would stand for the long haul.
In these efforts, disease mitigation became another important factor that required dedicated attention in order to keep everyone safe. Organizers arranged laundry services for the sleeping bags, spaced cots for maximum physical distancing, and tried to ensure maximum hygiene protocols for passengers.
On March 27, immigrations officers at Ramstein received official word that transiting military members could leave the passenger terminal as long as they remained on base. By this time, a total of 455 passengers had stayed overnight in the Casa de Pax.
Having learned from experience that pandemic-era restrictions can change rapidly with little warning, the 721 APS Airmen wisely chose to stage materials for potential future contingencies rather than close up shop entirely.
In the end, COVID-19 made 2020 a very challenging year filled with unique problem sets and complex challenges to Air Mobility operations. Fortunately, the collective efforts of the 521 AMOW, the 721 APS, and their mission partners ensured that affected travelers were fed, housed, and ultimately supported with travel exemptions so that they could eventually proceed to their destinations.
Looking back on the bilateral diplomatic efforts to preserve U.S. forces’ global reach and air mobility, this crisis also reinforced the critical importance of maintaining close and trusted relations with our allied and partner nations. Without the Federal Republic of Germany’s cooperation, the number of mission-degrading stays at the Casa de Pax would have been much higher.
As for the Airmen of the 721 APS, the Air Force has already recognized their extraordinary efforts. In March 2021, AMC announced that the 721 APS was selected for the highest honor for a squadron of its type: AMC Large Terminal of the Year.