A favorite mission was to airlift donations of chocolate milk to troops in Iraq.
BILL WHITTENBERGER was a few hundred feet higher than the top of the world.
Pushing his C130H2 Hercules cargo plane through the thin, indigo air above the Himalayan Mountains, the Austintown 38-year-old was alert to his options if something went wrong.
Except there weren't any options.
He'd done this 14 times before: the search for a specific, compact bowl carved in the complicated geology of Afghanistan, the steep white-knuckle descent with no room for error, the safe touchdown, unloading, loading and then back over the jagged mountain range, a trip the distance of Youngstown to the Atlantic Ocean.
Whittenberger has had nearly two years of this kind of work.
And, now, he can come down, at least for a while.
2,319 hours airborne
By the end of February, the last few men and women of Air Force Maj. Whittenberger's Vienna-based 757th Airlift Squadron will have demobilized and returned to the more peaceful rhythms of life in Ohio.
Since Feb. 27, 2003, violent events several continents from the Mahoning Valley have taken the 100-person unit to 20 countries -- and over a lot more -- during the 2,319 hours the squadron's 12 planes spent in the air.
It was the largest activation of personnel ever at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station.
In 808 missions, the 757th lugged 2,959 tons of cargo to such trouble spots as the Sept. 3 terrorist attack at the school in Beslan, Russia, where 350 people -- children mostly -- died and 700 were injured in the worst terror-related human catastrophe in the history of that country.
Pilots from the squadron ferried in 36,000 pounds of medical supplies to help survivors.
The unit delivered Rwandan relief troops to the genocide fields of Darfur in the Sudan.
The crews bobbed in and out of Baghdad International Airport, peering over the tops of their night vision goggles because the brilliant red tracers from ground fire were almost too bright to look at through them.
On northern Iraq missions in April 2003, Whittenberger said, he piloted planes "taking young-looking people into very dark places" -- planes full of worried young Marines charged with cutting off escape routes in case Saddam Hussein's troops were tempted to flee that way.
At 97 feet long and with a wingspan of 132 feet, the C130s the Youngstown unit flies are the smallest of the Air Force's major cargo craft.
But the planes also are among the most versatile. They can land on bare ground or grass. The four 4,950-horsepower engines can churn the propellers with enough power to get the planes aloft in short distances.
"In some parts of Iraq, the green is every bit as green as the Midwest in spring. We'd land in a place that looked completely isolated. All of sudden these little heads start popping up out of the grass, and you realize that there were a lot of people there," Maj. Jeff Vandootingh, 41, of Howland said of Special Forces troops that were waiting for a 757th ride.
In Afghanistan, Whittenberger added, the crews picked up "dune buggies loaded down with all kinds of strange looking equipment, highly modified weapons and Special Forces guys with beards who've been in the dirt for days."
The Youngstown flyers were the first to fly Marines out of Iraq for rest and relaxation stints.
Whittenberger and Vandootingh are in for a soft landing in Vienna.
They are reservists, but they form part of a full-time core of staffing at the air station.
For others, the descent back to civilian life is proving more bumpy.
Ron Sevako is a senior master sergeant from Canfield whose military specialty is loadmaster. He organizes the cargo and supervises the loading and unloading.
In "real life," he's a freight-rate expert for trucking companies.
Out of a job
After the Cleveland operation Sevako worked for went out of business a few years ago, the now 53-year-old bachelor began looking for a job closer to Canfield where he lives with his 90-year-old mom, Ann.
He found one. His first day at a Ravenna trucking company was Feb. 26, 2003.
It also was his last.
"On the first day -- the first day on the job -- I was on Interstate 76 on my way home checking my calls," Sevako said.
"I had left my cell phone in the car and when I got back to it there were 10 or 11 calls on my voice mail," he said.
The first four were from the base officer in charge of notifying troops it was time to ship out.
In 24 hours, he was packed and standing by to ship out.
A week later, he and his 757th cohorts were at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, ferrying food, clothes and bullets to Bosnia.
Back in the United States, things were changing at the trucking company. "The job I really wanted," Sevako said, was a casualty of Ohio's slumping economy.
With no job to come back to, he said, he plans to make himself available to the 757th to "fly on an as-needed basis, update the r & eacute;sum & eacute; and start looking for full-time employment."
They can never know for sure, but base officials say it's unlikely the men and women of the 757th will have to leave families and jobs anytime soon for overseas deployment.
Air Force commanders mobilized its sister unit at the Vienna installation, the 773rd Airlift Squadron, in December 2003 for two years, and it is due to return to normal operation at the base in November.
During their stint as full-time servicemen and women, the reservists spent 60 to 90 days overseas and the same period back at the base.
"Things should be relatively quiet around here as we get back to regular training," said Capt. Brent J. Davis, spokesman for the umbrella unit for the two squadrons, the 910th Airlift Wing.
One of Whittenberger's favorite missions was to airlift donations of chocolate milk to troops in northern Iraq.
"The absolute worst cargo to take out was a metal crate when you know there's one of those young faces inside," Whittenberger said of coffins in the hold of his plane.
"There's never a flight that's more quiet, and you can't miss your family any more than you do then."