Tuesday, January 11, 2011

TOP STORY > >Minihan: No break for wing since 9/11

Leader executive editor

Col. Mike Minihan, commander of the 19th Airlift Wing, sent off 40 airmen and a couple of C-130s into combat before the storm hit last weekend.

He was on the flightline at 6 a.m. and watched families say goodbye to the airmen as they left on their three-day trip to combat zones in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Another 40 flew out on Friday, and 160 others left on a commercial plane.

“Anything they need in combat, we do. We’re very proud of the air drops in Afghanistan to forward-deployed troops to make sure we can carry on the fight with the Taliban,” Minihan said after the planes took off with the airmen.

The C-130 crews can drop supplies with pinpoint accuracy — “literally the size of a basketball court,” he said.

“It’s a great reminder how precious their service is to the nation.”

They’ll be deployed overseas for four months, he said.

“This wing has not had a break since 9/11,” said Minihan, who has been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq several times. “I’ve done four tours as a squadron commander.”

“We haven’t lost one plane,” he said. “The crews are highly skilled and professional.”

“People worry about the new generation of Americans,” he continued. “I do not. They’re professional warriors….They really do inspire with their actions.”

Flying into combat is the culmination of their months of training: Delivering personnel and supplies and weapons — “beans and bullets,” Minihan said — and evacuating the wounded and cutting down on the number of truck convoys, which are often targets of roadside bombs.

Minihan was sitting Thursday at the head of a long conference table in his office at the 19th Airlift Wing headquarters building.

There are several high-backed chairs around the table, and draped over one chair is a weathered, leather bomber jacket that belonged to his grandfather, who was a B-26 pilot during the Second World War.

Minihan comes from a long line of pilots: His great-grandfather was stationed in Pearl Harbor when it was bombed in December 1941. As a Marine, he piloted a B-29 Superfortress, which was a key component of the 19th Bombardment Group, a forerunner of the 19th Airlift Wing. Two of those planes later dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

His father, retired Lt. Gen. Kenneth Minihan, is a former director of the National Security Agency who served as a combat pilot and intelligence officer in Vietnam.

The colonel graduated in 1989 from Auburn, which won the national football championship Monday night. He was named wing commander here last August.

He was previously stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base, where he trained as a C-130 pilot. Last year, he commanded the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing in the Middle East in support of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa.

He survived the attack on the Pentagon on 9/11, which killed 184 people. “I felt it and heard it and smelled it,” he said.

“I was fairly far away, but we thought another plane was going to hit the building. I didn’t see anybody panicking. The evacuation was orderly. When we went to work the next day, we knew we were going to war.”

Minihan was assigned to Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas.

“What was great was I got to command three squadrons from Dyess, Little Rock and Pope,” he said.

They’re part of Air Mobility Combat, whose C-130s are almost always on the go. The crews that maintain those planes work around the clock.

Almost 10 years later, he’s still commanding airmen going into Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 19th Airlift Wing has about 50 combat-ready planes, and about half of them are deployed overseas.

About 40 other C-130s are assigned to the Air National Guard’s 189th Airlift Wing and the 314th Airlift Wing, which train C-130 pilots from all the services and those from several foreign countries.

It takes more than $100 million a year to operate the planes on base. The annual payroll is about $330 million. The 189th Airlift Wing adds another $44 million to the local economy.

“We have great airmen who deserve from their leadership unyielding support and affection,” Minihan said. “It is a privilege to be associated with these folks who do their job so well. It’s an absolute honor.”

As for the airmen who took off last week, Minihan said, “The fun part is that in two weeks they’ll be relieving the other guys. I love it when they come home.”

He’ll be on the flightline, shaking every returning airman’s hand and thanking them for their service to their country.