About 50 members of the Utah Air National Guard's 109th Air Control Squadron returned to Utah Wednesday after four months in southwest Asia.

A loud cheer erupted among a sizeable group of family members as the door to the chartered airliner popped open and the first man in uniform emerged on the stairs.

For detachment commander Lt. Col. Joseph Cotner, getting off that plane "was the best thing ever." His squadron accomplished an outstanding mission with what he termed a "99 percent operational rate," but as soon as he met his family waiting inside a base hangar, his title went from colonel to "Daddy."

The squadron staffed radar equipment that provided an eye in the skies over the conflict area in the Middle East. Its location, while deployed, is still publicly undisclosed because the operation there is ongoing, said Lt. Col. Lisa Olsen. Family members knew where their loved ones were but have been asked not to tell.

Vickie DeNovellis is the squadron's volunteer representative for the families, a position she acquired only recently even though her husband, Senior Master Sgt. Chuck DeNovellis, has been with the squadron more than two decades.

A lot has changed since the squadron's first deployment, to Kuwait, in 2000. Troops had access to e-mail then, but the availability of computers to

send and receive messages was more limited than today. And on the deployment just ending, airmen had cell phones and other ways of keeping in touch. DeNovellis said she and her husband did a lot of communicating by texting.

At home, DeNovellis described the families of the squadron members as "close-knit," getting together at least once a month to socialize. The squadron's Christmas party was a big deal this year.

Families also carried along their "flat Daddies," life-sized cardboard photographic cutouts of their service members, as a way of keeping the entire family together during the deployment.

The squadron has its veterans but also has a significant number of new members on their first deployment. Especially for the newer members, "The excitement for them to come home is just overwhelming," DeNovellis said.

The 109th deployed Sept. 9 to provide radar surveillance, identification and command and control of coalition aircraft for combatant commanders. The 109th is among only a handful of Air Force squadrons of this type.

Besides the deployment to the Middle East in 2000, the unit was mobilized, at home, following the Sept. 11 attacks and during the 2002 Winter Games. In late 2003 the unit deployed more than 60 members to three locations in Iraq for seven months in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

E-mail: sfidel@desnews.com