How Airborne Saved My Life

In order to fully understand and appreciate this story, a basic knowledge of the C-130 crew and cockpit layout is required, and thus you are all going to get a lesson in how my office works today.  The typical crew of a Herk (C-130H Hercules) has 6 people – 2 pilots, a navigator, a flight engineer, and 2 loadmasters.  One of the pilots is the Aircraft Commander – he’s the experienced one of the two and is qualified to make all the decisions and lead the crew through the mission.  He’s also the one who gets in trouble when anything goes wrong (sucker).  The other pilot is actually the copilot (that’s me!), and is generally a less experienced pilot who hasn’t gone through training and been certified as an aircraft commander.  The copilot’s job includes working the radios and backing everybody up inside what can become a very busy cockpit.  Both pilots fly, but in combat, the aircraft commander will fly and the copilot will perform copilot duties.

The other officer up front is the navigator.  Three guesses what he does.  (Pssst . . . he navigates.)  Pilots actually know how to do a lot of what he does as far as basic route navigation and weather avoidance; however, the navigator’s bread and butter is airdrop.  He’s in charge of computing the release point based on winds, altitude, parachute type, and load ballistics, and then he navigates to that point and determines the precise moment when the load should leave the aircraft.  All pilots will understand what goes on, and experienced pilots will probably be able to do a decent job at it, but navigators are trained specifically in that area and are the only ones authorized to call “Green Light” (the signal that it’s time for the load to exit the airplane).  When we’re not flying airdrop and just doing pilot proficiency (we call it “pro”), the navigators get pretty bored and either sleep or make annoying noises.

The last person on the flight deck is the flight engineer, who is usually a sergeant and is in charge of monitoring aircraft engines and other systems.  He’s also magical and can sometimes fix broken stuff.  Engineers are my heroes.  They’re also usually pretty seasoned as far as being in the military goes, and you’ll never have a more entertaining and sometimes crusty and disgruntled view of the Air Force than from the engineer.

Finally, the loadmasters are in the back and they’re . . . the masters of the load . . . Seriously, though, they’re in charge of all the rigging of any cargo we have, whether we’re airdropping it or just unloading it on the ground, as well as monitoring (read: babysitting) any passengers.  Loadmasters have a specific role to play in airdrop – depending on the type of drop, sometimes they just watch to make sure it goes out like it’s supposed to, and sometimes they’re actually pulling a handle or cutting a strap that allows the load to exit the plane.  They’re usually pretty young enlisted guys, and comprise about 90% of an aircraft commander’s headaches with their off-duty antics.

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I took this picture from the bunk at the back of the cockpit.  You can see the pilot in the left seat, the copilot in the right seat, the flight engineer in the jump seat in the center, and the navigator standing on the right.  The loadmasters are obviously in the back . . . mastering the load . . .

One last thing about engineers before I start this story.  They run all checklists in flight, which can get pretty hectic, especially when you’re considering a tactical checklist during an airdrop when you have multiple people talking at once and multiple active radio frequencies clogging up the airwaves.  To ensure that the pilots know when a checklist has been completed, or when it’s their turn to respond to a particular checklist item, the engineer will place his hands on the shoulders of the pilots.  The gruffer ones will actually smack you, which is a bit shocking at first, but you get used to it.

Okay so finally . . . the story.  I was scheduled to fly in the morning one day last week, and I showed up to work and was wandering around the squadron when I heard one of our grumpier, crustier engineers talking about how terrible his night had been.  His description began with, “I was up all night throwing up, and so was my wife and my son and my daughter . . . but I’m good now.”  I tried to steer clear of his disease-infested body for awhile, until I looked up at the scheduling board and realized that he was to be the engineer on my flight that morning . . . and he fully intended to fly.  A few minutes later my aircraft commander found me and the other copilot scheduled for the flight, handed me some cash, and said, “Go to the store and buy some Airborne.  We’re all going to need it today.”  And sure enough, despite the fact that none of the rest of the crew was excited about being in the same room as the bacteria-ridden engineer, there we were, all crammed onto the flight deck together . . . him seated right behind me . . . breathing on me . . . touching me every time he ran a stinking checklist . . . Needless to say, we were all chewing on those Airborne tablets like they were candy.  They might actually be candy, I’m not sure.  But a week later, I’m happy to report that not a single one of us got sick.  This is my official Airborne endorsement.

We did a lot of pilot proficiency that flight, which meant . . . bored navigator.  Rather than sleeping, he managed to use his time in a productive manner, by creating this:

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At least we didn’t have to listen to him snore.

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