Heidelberg, Germany - The Army's only aviation detachment here does not own any aircraft or man any flight control towers, but the 50-year-old organization is responsible for almost every Army aircraft taking to the air over Europe.

The Army Flight Operations Detachment, part of the U.S. Army Europe's headquarters aviation section (G3), celebrated it 50th anniversary of service and its part in the Heidelberg community Aug. 23.

The AFOD provides flight service support for the U.S. European Command's area of responsibility, which includes 93 countries and territories, explained the detachment's senior NCO, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Davis. That totals to more than 21 million square miles of air space ranging from the North Cape of Norway to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

The detachment also supports all USAREUR aviation training exercises and contingency missions during deployments and redeployments and acts as the central point of contact for aviation-related matters.

And, if an aircraft is late reporting to its scheduled destination, the AFOD staff begins search and rescue procedures.

If there is an emergency, the detachment will serve as the central point for information coming in from the field and for disbursing information to higher headquarters, Davis said.

The detachment is the central point of contact for U.S. search-and-rescue missions, he said. If a U.S. aircraft is overdue at its planned destination, the AFOD starts the tracking process.

"We are the information facilitators," Davis said. "We gather and push out to agencies that need it. We are the hub where all the information is going to come to."

The detachment provides pilot and flight tracking services for all Europe-based Army aircraft, some Air Force flights and civilian flying clubs that use Army airfields, Davis said.

It is the central flight information point for eight Army airfields and four helipads in USAREUR. It keeps track of about 70 Army rotary (helicopter) and fixed-wing aircraft, but that number can total about 160 with the addition of the currently deployed 12th Combat Aviation Brigade's birds.
On a typical day, the detachment supports about 140 flights with peaks hitting up to about 200, Davis said. The detachment is always manned and conducts its operations around the clock every day of the year.

Although it handles mostly Army air traffic, the detachment also processes flight plans from other U.S. services. They also receive and process flight plans from military aircraft originating in the states traveling to or through Europe.

The detachment compiles NOTAMS - notices to Airmen, flight information concerning routes or landing sites - uploading them into a Web-based database that pilots flying in the USEUCOM area of operations can view, Davis said.

The flight administration and data processing sections track aircraft missions from start to finish.

The detachment traces is beginnings to the end of World War II when the 5th Aviation Operating Detachment was stood up and charged with the responsibility for Army airfields in Germany. The 5th AOD's operations included manning and running of control towers, air traffic control, and the operation and maintenance of the navigational facilities.

In 1957, the Army Flight Operations Facility was activated at the Heidelberg Army Airfield as part of the Signal Service Battalion, Europe. Its mission was to provide centralized flight services to all U.S. Army aircraft operating in Europe.

Over the years, the detachment underwent several re-designations, name changes and upgrades in its communications technology since its founding.

At the height of its operations, the detachment was comprised of five warrant or commissioned officers, 24 enlisted Soldiers, and 42 local national civilian employees. Its current personnel roster carries three warrant officers, five Soldiers and 21 civilian employees.

"We are the quiet guys behind the scenes," said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Noel C. Seale, the detachment's commanding officer. "A pilot needs to fly, and if we are not here, he has no way to get his flight plan into the system. Anytime you see an (U.S. Army) aircraft flying here, we had a hand in that."

The AFOD team serves as the liaison between Army aviation and Germany's air traffic control system, he explained. The AFOD's civilian employees are able to track all aircraft flying in Germany's airspace and let the host nation's air traffic system know about the U.S. flights.

"The job has changed a lot in USAREUR because we used to have a lot of airplanes here. When you look at all the units coming and going, we are still here," Seale said. "The one constant is that we have not changed: We have the same mission that we had in the '50s.
"If we continue to have aviation in Europe for another 50 years, then we will be celebrating our 100th anniversary."

(Dave Melancon is a member of the USAG Heidelberg Public Affairs Office)