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Hill Airman a multi-capable Airman in Operation Allies Refuge

  • Published
  • By Cynthia Griggs
  • 75th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

While forward deployed to Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, Staff Sgt. Harold Balcom, an air traffic controller supervisor currently assigned to the 75th Operations Support Squadron here, was awakened the night of Aug. 17, 2021, and told to pack a 72-hour bag.

Five hours later, along with another Airman, Balcom was on a plane headed to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, to support with Operation Allies Refuge operations to assist with the evacuation of Afghan civilians from the country, which marked the end of the war in Afghanistan.

Balcom was deployed with a U.S. Marine unit called Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force and integrated with the Contingency Response Element and other international air traffic controllers to sequence and separate aircraft and worked behind the scenes to enable the evacuation of more than 124,000 civilian and military personnel and equipment.

During the 10-day deployment, Balcom said he put real-world use of the Multi-Capable Airman and Agile Combat Employment training he received into practice.

MCA is an Air Force initiative where Airmen are trained to accomplish certain tasks outside of their primary Air Force Specialty Code, which allows them to work in a “contested, degraded, and operationally limited environment” with minimal support.  

“At the time, the concept was still new, and it was something we were able to implement throughout the operation,” said Balcom. “We filled the role of multiple different jobs during our time there, even though we were only expected to do air traffic control operations.”

Within the first few hours upon arriving at the airport, Balcom said they were forced to adapt to working with minimal equipment and without an actual flight tower.

“We were working on the side of one of the taxiways with mobile radios under a canopy tent,” he said. “We had no radar to assist our ability to locate and identify airborne aircraft arriving and departing the airport, and our view from the taxiway made it difficult to see ground operations. There was never a quiet moment.”

In addition to sequencing inbound and outbound aircraft, Balcom took on other responsibilities as well such as conducting routine “foreign object debris” checks and setting up emergency airfield lighting systems during power outages. He also helped manage security, tracked and escorted passengers and cargo, and coordinated fuel and transient alert services for the aircraft.

The biggest challenge he said was dealing with “imminent threats” to the area during the operation including gunfire, snipers and suicide bombers attacking the airfield.

During the night of Aug. 26, a suicide bomber detonated in a crowd at one of the gates, taking the lives of 13 Marines and more than 170 civilians.

The bombing created a very chaotic environment and temporarily halted airfield operations.

“We held our position on the airfield without any guidance on what to do or expect,” he said. “As ground attack alarms were sounding off, we knew that night was going to continue to be challenging.”

He said even though he did not know the fallen Marines personally, he had interacted with them, and he was there when they taxied them out for departure to bring them home. He also attended their memorial service they had at PSAB.

“The experience made things very real for me seeing the emotions from all the service members across the different countries and allies we were working with at the airport,” he said.

Balcom departed Kabul early the next morning back to Prince Sultan Air Base because almost all the evacuations had departed.

“It was an honor to be a part of such an important mission. This experience has really opened my eyes from an air traffic control standpoint of how important our training and confidence can assist during real-world operations,” said Balcom.

“Staff Sgt. Balcom’s experience in Kabul is an excellent example of an Air Traffic Control Airmen employing his cross-utilization training,” said Lt. Col. Diana Bradfield, 75th OSS commander. "We continue to train and utilize our tactics, techniques, and procedures to operate in a radar or cyber-denied environment, with limited equipment, and in austere locations.”

“The results mean that our Airmen are better prepared to take on a myriad of unique tasks to support the flying missions anywhere and at any time,” she said.

Operation Allies Refuge has become the largest non-combatant evacuation airlift in U.S. history with nearly 800 civilian and military aircraft with more than 124,000 people safely evacuated over 17 days.

Staff Sgt. Balcom is originally from Tampa Bay, Florida and joined the Air Force in 2016. He has been stationed at Hill Air Force Base since January 2022.