Six big military planes roared to life early Saturday at the North Carolina Air National Guard’s 145th Airlift Wing headquarters at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
As the sun poked through fog, C-130 Hercules crews readied for takeoff to Fort Bragg where they’d pick up and transport 300 paratroopers to a drop zone.
For the 30 or so airmen, the mission would about take about half of their monthly weekend training which began at 8 a.m. Elsewhere around the sprawling 99 acres, more than 1,000 other Air National Guard members were engaged in everything from physical testing to drill and ceremony.
They joined nearly 8,000 soldiers and airmen of the state Air National Guards around North Carolina attending their first drill weekends since the Oct. 1 partial government shutdown.
The guard invited the media out to the Charlotte-based 145th Airlift Wing headquarters for a look at the resumed training activities.
“We’re excited to be back to work,” said Lt. Col. Maury Williams, director of public affairs for the North Carolina National Guard. “This (shutdown) was tough. But obviously we survived. We want to show folks that we’re still relevant and ready. That, hey, we’re here.”
The 145th operates transport aircraft around the world.
Like most of the rest of the National Guard, it has faced increasing pressures and frequent deployments over the past decades.
They’ve been called on to supplement the regular military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 145th’s missions include transporting supplies and people, a medical evacuation squadron, combat communications, air traffic controllers and a close air support unit that calls in airstrikes for ground units.
It also has an aerial firefighting unit. In 2012 its specially outfitted C-130 firefighting plane crashed over the Black Hills of South Dakota, killing four airmen and injuring two.
On Saturday, airmen came from all over the country for the two-day training session. One man who works in Japan even made the trip.
A Kings Mountain native who joined the military at age 17, Williams, 47, was proud of the citizen soldiers who showed up for training.
“They keep themselves physically and mentally fit so they’ll be ready to answer the call from the president or governor,” he said. “Most people don’t know all this is going on right in their backyards here in Charlotte.”
At the track, where airmen were taking physical testing, Lt. Col. Bobby Walston finished the 1 1/2 run at a nice clip. The newly appointed director of the state Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation, he’s a civil engineer officer with the rank of lieutenant colonel and just back from a mission in Botswana.
Members of his civil engineering unit would be getting flu shots on Saturday, and he’d get a hepatitis shot which was required because of the trip to Africa. But because of the shutdown the weekend would mostly be “full of briefings and catching up,” Walston said.
In the 145th’s dining room – named The Carolinian – Senior Master Sgt. Anne Marie Trial checked on preparations for Saturday’s big holiday meal, a combination of Thanksgiving and Christmas, because there would be no weekend drill in December.
She expected about 400 would show up for roast turkey, baked ham, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, squash casserole, green beans, gravy and assorted other dishes.
Two women carved pumpkins and worked on other decorations for the table centerpieces. They had also made signs that identified pumpkin and sweet potato pies on the serving line.
“They’re artists who’ve gone to a school for graphic arts,” Trial said. “We’ve got a lot of talent here.”
The 145th headquarters pulsated with action.
Military planes and commercial jetliners streaked into the sky.
On the ground, people in gym shorts jogged and knocked out pushups. Others in full uniform went through various military drills. And marching around parking lots were groups of trainees, new recruits who were headed to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
‘It helped me grow’
Watching them was Lt. Col. Rose Dunlap, the 145th’s public affairs officer. The pre-basic training the young recruits were getting in Charlotte would put them ahead of the game, she said.
A former teacher with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Dunlap joined the Air National Guard at age 28 and rose through the enlisted ranks to become an officer.
This was her last weekend drill before retirement. Seeing the new crop of recruits made her hopeful they would enjoy their military experience as much as she did.
“It was a real blessing for me,” Dunlap said. “It helped me grow into the person I am today.”
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