An Amazing Look Inside The US Air Force's Headquarters In Europe

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This post is part of the “Tours of Duty” series, which honours America’s military birthdays with in-depth tours of military bases and schools. “Tours Of Duty” is sponsored by USAA. Read more posts in the series »

With its staggering scope and scale, Ramstein Air Base in Germany is one America’s most important — and most fascinating — military facilities.

Located in southwestern Germany, not far from the Rhine River and the French border, Ramstein not only serves as the headquarters of the US Air Force in Europe and as a 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), also known as K-Town. It 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. In fact, it’s the largest concentration of Americans outside of the US. But it’s also notably multicultural, including personnel from many countries.

Ramstein started out as an impromptu Nazi airstrip based on a stretch of autobahn in the final days of World War II. In the decades since, Ramstein has become a central hub for American personnel, cargo and intelligence operations from Europe to Afghanistan and Africa, as well as a medical center for soldiers wounded in battle.

Over 2 days in September, Business Insider was given an extensive — and breathtaking — tour of the base and its operations.

Ramstein Air Base is a central hub of international US operations ranging from Western Africa and Europe to Afghanistan, with almost 33,000 aircraft passing through the base in 2013 alone. The base's critical importance is obvious after you see some of the many things that happen there every day.

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 moves 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 aircraft.

The 37th also frequently partners with airlift squadrons from other countries' militaries. This wall shows some of the emblems of the other foreign and US military units the 37th has worked with.

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 warriors and distinguished visitors in locations from Afghanistan to Africa.

Medical evacuations are carried out aboard a C-21 passenger jet. The 76th has 16 authorised pilots for this aircraft, and the pilots 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 conducted over 2,000 missions.

The 86th also operates the Consolidated 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 earlier this year, he was aboard one of the 76th's aircraft.

Aside from 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, before being deployed to locations such as Afghanistan.

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 fire team has a dummy aircraft and building on which they can practice drills.

The second wing operating out of Ramstein is the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing. The 435th do not have their own planes but instead are tasked with rapidly establishing airfields and communication networks. The 435th also maps weather from Afghanistan to South Africa to the US and provides 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 on topics 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 aggression in 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 on 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 521st is responsible for the unloading and loading of military cargo at Ramstein.

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.

Aside from running 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 community. Approximately 2,000 service members and their families live on-base. Families have the chance to live in well-manicured houses ...

... Or apartment blocks.

Lower-ranking single enlisted members live in dormitories.

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 even Wicca.

The 86th runs, maintains, and staffs the base's massive post exchange, or PX.

Although it's in the German countryside, the PX on Ramstein resembles an American mall.

The movie theatre on base plays the latest blockbusters from America with minimal delay ...

... And the PX features the latest in electronic goods for purchase, all tax free.

Everything a servicemember would need for their daily life can be purchased at the Ramstein PX.

This includes military uniforms ...

... And even traditional German clothing styles.

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.

A 350-room, fully sound-proofed hotel is located next to the PX.

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 such as 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 base never stops.

You've seen inside Ramstein Air Base ...

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