BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan - The ground below them was desolate and resembled a ghost town, even the air traffic control tower was empty as a C-130 aircraft landed on Forward Operating Base Salerno's dirt runway to pick up the last, service members who would fly out of the base.
The six C-130 airmen assigned to the 744th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron didn't find out till the day prior they would be the last aircrew to take off from Salerno.
"It was more of a normal mission for us, as a squadron we fly into Salerno a lot except this was the last mission any aircraft would ever fly into or off the base," said Capt. Therese Landin, the aircraft commander deployed from Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., and native of Fredericksburg, Va. "The air traffic controller was on the ground directing us where to go."
According the crew, landing at Salerno is not easy because the base is surrounded by mountains, and its runway is made of gravel.
"Salerno's runway is one we train for at home station because it's made of gravel and when you take off it's at a slope along with obstacles you have to clear immediately," said Capt. Kimberly Novak a navigator deployed from Little Rock AFB and native of Tucson, Ariz. "Gravel will change how you take off or land an airplane. If the gravel is wet it can determine if we land or not, but during this mission we had no ground support [so we had to] us to check from overhead."
However, aircrews use training to plan missions around the terrain in Afghanistan.
"For example, for this mission we knew we would be gas limited so we allotted a time window on how long we would allow members to come up to the plane to load," said Novak.
Similar to the pilots, loadmasters rely on training and expertise with a mission like this that always has the potential to change once on the ground.
"This mission was unique because we were closing down a base and you can't really coordinate with anyone in advance," said Staff Sgt. Matt Pockette, a loadmaster deployed from Little Rock and native of Bloomington, Ind. "We had to deal with people walking up to the aircraft last minute to get on, extra baggage and cargo. That required us to recalculate the weight on the ground to ensure the aircraft was balanced. Our overall amount was 250 passengers, two all-terrain vehicles and 2,500 pounds of baggage."
This is the first deployment for copilot 1st Lt. Domingo Astiasaran and one he said he will not forget.
"Back in Cheyenne you always hear people talk about the Salerno," said Astiasaran, deployed from Wyoming Air National Guard and native of Hartford, Conn. "My first time flying into Salerno was at night and to me it was really exciting. It's cool to be on the tail end of it now seeing how everyone works together to complete the current retrograde process."
Salerno was one of the most dangerous bases in the area of responsibility and nicknamed "Rocket City" from its history of rocket attacks.
Staff Sgt. Joshua Hammer, flight engineer said, "All the passengers were excited and yelling 'good bye Salerno' as we took off."
This isn't the first base this crew has shut down together.
"Prior to Salerno, we shut down Forward Operating Base Kunduz," said Senior Airman Bradley Price, loadmaster deployed from Little Rock AFB and a native of Anderson, S.C. "It feels good when you see how happy everyone is to get out of there and to be a part of a mission like this"
Not only was it an event passengers wouldn't forget, but this mission was a milestone for the aircrew.
"It's the assault field of Afghanistan and to be the last C-130 mission onto that field, it likes leaving a legacy because in the future all aircrew members coming out of school or on their first deployment are not guaranteed to experience that," said Hammer, deployed from Wyoming Air National Guard and a native of Mesa, Ariz.
The aircrew concluded, closing down those two FOBs was the most exciting mission they could have participated in here because they were all part of history in the making.