Budget cuts, sequestration and furloughs are pinching operations across every aspect of the Army, challenging soldiers and civilians to do things more smartly and with fewer people. The Arrival/Departure Airfield Control Group at Robert Gray Army Airfield is a good example of how crews across all aspects of the Army have buckled down to keep our forces strong and ready.
The 13 members of the group — all U.S. military veterans — coordinate, plan and execute the movement of more than 10,000 tons of equipment and personnel every year in and out of the airfield. That translates to dozens of aircraft flying in and out of the small regional airport every week, from gigantic C-17 Globemasters and DC-10s to small Learjets and single-propeller planes. NASA’s modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Aircraft Carriers used the airfield often before the Space Shuttle program was retired, and both Air Force One and Marine One still do.
The constant circulation of planes did not slow down this year when sequestration sliced the number of employees in the control group from 19 to 13, but the airfield traffic didn’t miss a beat. Like good soldiers do, they adapted and found a way to complete the mission.
“Nothing has stopped,” said Emily Shumate, the supervisor traffic management specialist for the group. She spent 25 years in the Army before retiring at Fort Hood and joining the civilian workforce. “We lost six people in March, so we just have to do the same amount of work with less people.”
Mark Harper, a transportation assistant with a British accent and amazing military career — four years in the British army, six years in the U.S. Navy, and 11 years in the U.S. Army — explained how they’ve managed to keep things running smoothly.
“We all know what we’re doing, so we just have to work as a team a little bit more,” he said. “They don’t allow us overtime (because of the budget cuts), so the way the flights come in we have to jump around our hours. Sometimes we’ll come in for four hours one day, and two hours another day because we have to work a Saturday, but we stay on it.”
Working around the flight schedules of all the aircraft has been a major challenge, Shumate said.
“We’re only allowed to work 40-hour work weeks,” she said. “But our missions happen at all hours of the day and night. I have to manage people to cover down on those missions, so they may come in and work during the day, go home, and come back at night. During the furlough we were reduced to 32 hours a week, and we still managed to do it without overtime.”
The duties of the group don’t end with the loading and unloading of supplies and equipment, Shumate said. In fact, the most important part of their job for the past decade has been the movement of soldiers to and from war zones.
“Our main function out here is the deployment and redeployment process,” she said. “It’s an enormous amount. We’ve pushed 45,000 soldiers out of here in 2013, and that’s just commercial. In the past 10 years, since the start of the Iraq war, we’ve pushed out 649,000 passengers on chartered commercial flights, and 9,600 (on military flights).”
“You lose track after a while,” Harper said. “You just try to focus on what you’re doing and make sure the soldiers stay safe.”
Shumate said facilitating the movement of U.S. forces and supplies is not the only thing in their job description.
“We also do the Royal Dutch, about three aircraft a month, and the French,” she said. “And we don’t just do that — we also train units on pallet building. There are three of us in the office, and 10 (on the field) that do everything.”
Larry Ford, a transportation assistant with a permanent smile on his face, who served for 27 years in the Army before retiring and joining the group, summed up the crew’s work ethic.
“We all work together as a team and we have a good time,” he said. “We’ve had to work faster and smarter (since the cuts), but everybody helps one another and we make it work.”