Staggering in its scope and scale, Ramstein Air Base in Germany is one of America’s most important and fascinating military facilities.
Located in southwestern Germany, it serves not only as the headquarters of the US Air Force in Europe and a major NATO installation but also as a gateway to American military operations around the globe.
The base is part of a conglomeration of 12 Army and Air Force installations that make up the Kaiserslautern Military Community (KMC).
This community, also known as K-Town, hosts almost 54,000 Americans across 300 neighbouring German towns and cities, turning the Rhineland-Palatinate state of Germany into a tiny slice of America. The area has the largest concentration of Americans outside of the US, though it’s also notably multicultural and includes personnel from many countries.
Over two days in September of 2014, Business Insider was given an extensive tour of the base and its operations.
Ramstein Air Base is a central hub of international US military operations ranging from West Africa and Europe to Afghanistan, with almost 33,000 aircraft passing through the base in 2013 alone. After spending some days on base, we were blown away by how much happens there.
Ramstein is run by the 86th Airlift Wing, which is composed of six groups and 27 squadrons. The 37th Blue Tail Flies Airlift Squadron, which is part of the 86th, is a dedicated airlift unit that's been used to move everything from hurricane evacuees to firetrucks to pieces of artillery.
The 37th flies the C-130J 'Super' Hercules transport plane. The 86th has 14 of these enormous aircraft.
All upkeep on the 37th's C-130 planes is done by a dedicated maintenance squadron within the 86th Air Wing.
The 76th Fighting Doves, another airlift squadron, is responsible for the transit of wounded fighters and distinguished visitors.
Medical evacuations are carried out aboard a C-21 passenger jet. The 76th has 16 authorised pilots for this aircraft who are ready to carry out aeromedical evacuations any minute of the day in 104 countries.
In case of aeromedical evacuations, the 10th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Flight is always standing by. So far this year, the team has airlifted over 2,000 patients.
The 86th also operates the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility, which handles the transportation of wounded warriors who arrive in Ramstein to the nearby military hospital in Landstuhl.
Aside from aeromedical evacuations, the 76th squadron carries equipment and distinguished visitors. When Senator John McCain flew to Syria in early 2014, he was aboard one of the 76th's aircraft.
Beyond airlift operations, Ramstein is the site of the largest working dog kennel outside of the US. These dogs receive daily training in patrol work and bomb detection.
Fire safety also falls under the responsibility of the 86th. The Ramstein firefighters provide support base-wide, as well as to neighbouring military installations and communities.
The second wing operating out of Ramstein is the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing. The 435th is tasked with rapidly establishing airfields and communication networks. They also map weather from Afghanistan to South Africa to the US and provide combat support and training.
The 435th consists of 1,500 personnel spread across 14 sites. Here, members of the 435th Contingency Response Group based at Ramstein train at constructing a deployment airfield. The 435th can completely develop an airfield's infrastructure within a six-month time frame.
In the event of a disaster, personnel from the 435th can parachute into an area, determine if an airfield is in good enough quality for aircraft to land, and secure the area. Other members of the 435th also embed with the Army to call in airstrikes or provide expeditionary training in areas like construction and mechanics.
When we visited Ramstein, the 435th were planning around Operation Steadfast Javelin, a multinational NATO exercise partly aimed at reassuring the Baltic States during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This floor mat is a scale outline of an airfield in Latvia where part of the operation was held.
The third permanent wing operating out of Ramstein is the 521st Air Mobility Operations Wing, which coordinates and expedites the delivery of supplies, people, and humanitarian goods across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
In the event that an arriving C-17 Globemaster III on a high-priority mission lands and needs immediate maintenance, the 521st keeps a spare C-17 at the ready in Ramstein so as not to delay the mission.
The military's Air Mobility Command (AMC) is responsible for the operations of the Ramstein Passenger Terminal, through which an estimated 225,000 passengers pass each year, ranging from personnel travelling aboard military aircraft to families aboard weekly charter flights.
The AMC runs four weekly charter flights that pass through Ramstein. Each begins in Baltimore and then passes through Ramstein before ending in either Turkey, Kuwait, or Qatar.
Passengers must go through German immigration and passport control, even though they are entering a US military base.
Within the airport is a distinguished visitor lounge, which provides private space for service members ranked colonel and above, family members of soldiers missing or killed in action, and Medal of Honour recipients.
The base also hosts a number of visiting units and aircraft. Ramp 2, pictured below, was in use by the National Guard for the ongoing Operation Steadfast Javelin exercise when we visited.
Along with overseeing airlift operations, the 86th is responsible for running the entirety of Ramstein Air Base for the benefit of the more than 60 military units, offices, or agencies with a presence there.
Ramstein is in many ways its own, self-contained community. Approximately 2,000 service members and their families live on-base. Families can live in well-manicured houses ...
To cater to the over 10,000 US dependents in the region, Ramstein has several schools, including two high schools and a child development center that can accommodate 330 preschool-aged kids.
The base has two chapels, with weekly services in various denominations of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other faiths including Wicca.
Everything a service member would need for his or her daily life can be purchased at the Ramstein PX.
Service members are able to purchase cars, tax free, at the PX. The vehicles can actually be shipped to the service member's next duty location.
Physical fitness is key to military service, and Ramstein has two fitness centres on base. An estimated 3,000 people use them every day.
Beyond the food court at the PX, anyone with a military ID card -- regardless of country -- can eat in the dining halls on base, which are reminiscent of a college cafeteria. The dining halls serve breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a midnight meal.
There are also stand-alone American-style fast-food restaurants throughout the base, along with recreation options like bowling alleys and a full 18-hole golf course.
All of the comforts provided by the 86th at Ramstein are there to support the base's overall vital functions of connecting the US to Africa, Europe, western Asia, and the Middle East.
With flights constantly arriving in Ramstein from all across the world, duty and service on the base never stops.
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