As I sit on my bunk bed trying to figure out how to tell this story, the phrase, “You make your own luck,” comes to mind. I wish I could say that our unparalleled wisdom and skill combined to turn an ordinary day into The World’s Greatest Mission Flown By the World’s Greatest Aircrew . . . however . . . let’s just say that phrase works both ways. One might create her own luck, but she also creates her own calamity. Maybe we were tired, maybe our hearts just weren’t in it that day, or maybe we were bored and took it upon ourselves to make the day interesting; whatever the cause, this is the story of the ordinary day that my crew of six single-handedly transformed into a never-ending comedy of errors.
It was an early-morning mission, and a beautiful day – everything should have been easy, routine, a one-and-done type of day (or three-and-done – our allowable duty day typically accommodates three out-and-back flights to nearby FOBs). We loaded our aircraft with “fifty-six and two” – a standard Herk configuration with fifty-six passengers and two cargo pallets. The fifty-six happened to be fifty-six paratroopers, complete with flak vests, helmets, and enough gear to last them . . . well . . . weeks in combat without resupply. (This doesn’t work as well as an analogy when it’s the truth . . . just go with it).
“Torque 58, cleared for takeoff.” I keyed the radio as Chris, my aircraft commander, released the brakes and slowly eased the throttles forward, coaxing the thirty-year-old power plants from a low growl to a wild roar.
My flight engineer, Landry, called torque values as the airplane’s speed increased. “Five . . . ten . . . push ‘em up, plenty of power . . . fifteen, power’s set.” The white lines began to blur beneath us as we accelerated, our bodies shaking like bobble-head toys on a dashboard and the end of the runway speeding towards us. The rush of the wind past the cockpit windows combined with the deep rumble of the engines to drown out almost all other sound; I leaned forward to increase the volume of voices coming through my headset.
“Go,” I uttered as we reached takeoff speed and felt the yoke ease back towards my chest as Chris commanded the airplane to fly. A few seconds later, one layer of the world of noises lifted as the wheels departed the runway and Chris called for the raising of the landing gear and flaps. We continued to gain speed and altitude, and I could almost hear the old aircraft’s sigh of relief as she reached her state of equilibrium, like a marathoner whose first steps are agony but to whom that tenth mile at the perfect pace seems divinely inspired.
The next five minutes were a whirlwind of radio calls and traffic avoidance, headings and altitudes and checklists. We had just departed one of the busiest airports in the world, where a second of silence on the radio probably indicates an equipment malfunction and unmanned aerial vehicles swarm like blind bees, ready to clip the wing of an aircraft carrying real people and send them spiraling towards earth at any moment. I edged forward on my seat as Chris controlled the aircraft, listening intently to traffic advisories and Jamie’s navigational instructions while simultaneously eyeing the aircraft instruments to ensure we maintained the parameters from Air Traffic Control (ATC). These moments are always sheer panic, whether we take off with blue skies and unlimited visibility or directly into a soupy wall of gray clouds. A beautiful day like this just meant more airplanes in the sky to avoid, more radio calls to listen to. Life became consumed in static, engine noise, and aircraft instruments.
Finally, after ten minutes of clenched teeth and occasional hand-signal communication as static drowned out our voices, those sweet words from ATC: “Radar services terminated, frequency change approved.” I breathed a sigh of relief as Jamie’s sporadic communication with the operational Big Brother agency that controls airspace outside of major airfields became our primary radio, and I dialed our destination airfield’s tower frequency, content knowing we still had fifteen panic-free minutes before we would plunge towards earth once again.
“It’s beautiful here.” Landry’s ability to recognize the little things in life, like the epic scenery surrounding us even in the midst of this panicky flight over a war-torn nation, called me to actually see the landscape below us. A recent snow still coated the mountains that reached for miles in every direction, the white caps eventually blending with the clouds hovering in the distance. Sporadic streaks of brown interrupted the uniformly frosted earth where rock cliffs too steep to hold snow jutted from the mountainsides. Little villages tucked into valleys, houses and yards surrounded by square, tan walls, elicited wonder at the one road leading from a main city and winding through numerous mountain passes before finally reaching the isolated nook. It was a world we could only see from 16,000 feet, where the cars look like dots and the people are invisible.
Throughout my three months of flying here, I have fought a war with the ultimate goal of achieving peace (and probably democracy) in Afghanistan. The ends of our more than a decade of efforts here center around the people themselves, the aim of bringing them a life of security and prosperity . . . or at least one more secure and prosperous than previously. We set out to win the hearts and minds of the average citizen, and we have pointedly fought the Taliban, the terrorists, not the Afghans themselves. Yet the only time I venture from my American air base is to fly my C-130 to another American air base, where we land and taxi and offload our cargo within the safe confines of a bunkered and barbed-wired fence. My interaction with the people whose well-being is a primary goal of this war has been practically zero. Flying above their villages, seeing them standing on rooftops a hundred yards outside fence lines, they seem mythical, real yet obscure, a mystery for which we fight but only view from a distance. Every day that finds me sailing over their homes, gazing at children’s soccer games and clothes hanging on lines as we depart a field, leaves me wondering, wishing I could know the essence of what we are truly fighting for.
The few serene minutes above that snowy landscape passed quickly. I pulled my focus from the rapture of the craggy hillsides and listened as Chris began his descent brief. He pulled the throttles back to idle and pushed the nose forward. Snow-white desert filled the windscreen and I watched the altimeter roll backwards as we plunged towards the earth, diving our 120,000-pound aircraft as we drew closer to the field.
Our track grew closer to extended runway centerline, and Chris abruptly banked the aircraft left and pulled. I could feel the blood rushing from my head as the G forces increased, their effects accentuated in such a large aircraft. The C-130 is not fast, agile, or high-tech, but ask her to slow down, and she delivers. With the propellers flattened against the wind and the G forces bleeding energy, we slowed enough to drop our flaps and landing gear in time for a steep descent to the field.
This particular destination is full of visual illusions; we followed the sloping terrain down towards the approach end of the runway, which then abruptly sloped upwards at a nearly 3% grade. Jamie called altitudes as I stated airspeeds and descent rates, providing Chris with raw data to supplement the picture he saw as we hurtled towards the narrow runway. “50 feet . . . 40 . . . 30 . . . 20 . . . 10.”
Touchdown. “In the zone,” I said, affirming that we had landed in the first five hundred feet of the runway. Chris pulled the throttles into reverse and with a deep whoosh and low growl of thousands of pounds of force, we strained forward against our harnesses as the aircraft slowed to a crawl. The upward slope of the runway aided our deceleration as we rolled towards the parking apron at the other end.
We parked at the edge of the apron, leaving enough room for another C-130 to fit on the parking ramp, and prepared for our engine-running offload (ERO), standard practice at small fields to accelerate the downloading and uploading of cargo and passengers. After a few minutes, one of our loadmasters called from the back.
“Pilot, we have to move – they can’t get the equipment in behind us to download.” The recent snowstorms had left three feet of snow on the airfield, and the genius who had plowed it had failed to move the banks far enough from the parking apron to accommodate normal operations. We had to reposition.
As Landry returned the engines to normal speed, I called the tower to inform them of our plan to reposition. We pulled onto the runway, deciding to do the airplane-version of a three-point turn (reversing is a bit sportier, but definitely possible). We pulled forward onto the runway, nose pointed downhill, and prepared to back up. With all four engines in full reverse, I looked out my cockpit window, expecting to see the world moving forward . . . but nothing. We remained completely stationary. It took us all a few seconds to realize what was happening, and I know the thought crossed my mind to use the momentum of my body to eek the plane backwards, like a child in a wagon that has come to a stop.
“We’re not moving.” Chris’s frustration was evident as he moved the throttles back to idle. We were stuck on the runway, facing downhill, unable to reverse or turn in any direction. “Tell tower we’re going to back taxi and turn around at the end of the runway.” A series of muttered expletives issued from Chris’s throat in a low hiss. I was actually afraid of him in that moment, this 5’7” man who probably weighs 150 pounds soaking wet . . . his anger at the circumstances was almost palpable. I apologetically made our request with tower and much like Chris’s anger, the controller’s exasperation oozed through the radios. We began rolling down the runway, passing a group of people controlling a small unmanned aerial vehicle near the field. The problem with flying a large aircraft, or any aircraft for that matter, is that it gets pretty tough to hide mistakes. It didn’t take a genius to realize that our little jaunt back to the approach end of the runway was in fact a roll of shame. If there was a doubt in anyone’s mind, it was soon extinguished when we flipped a 180 and began moving right back to the parking apron.
After taxiing uphill just a hundred yards, tower called.
“Torque 58, hold position for landing helicopter traffic.” As I replied to this instruction, with his every movement exaggerated like a mime ensuring his audience followed his wordless story, Chris set the parking brake, threw his harness from his shoulders, and sprang to the back without a word. I turned and raised my eyebrows at Landry, half laughing at Chris’s beeline for the urinal at the back of the C-130, and half terrified that his rage would turn him into the Hulk. There we sat, pilot-less, blocking an active runway while Chris climbed over fifty-six fully-equipped paratroopers to attain some much-needed relief. He first attempted the standard paratrooper-transit method – using hand motions to ask them to spread their legs, allowing him to step on the exposed seat rails. A few picked up on the request, but when he reached some whose legs remained closed, Chris’s full bladder left him no choice. He simply stepped on their knees until he reached his goal. This little stunt elicited a substantial amount of grumbling from the troopers, who were packed like sardines onto uncomfortable cot-like seats for two hours only to be carted back and forth for over thirty minutes for no apparent reason. The day was certainly heading in a positive direction.
As Jamie, Landry, and I waited for Chris to negotiate the obstacle course in the cargo compartment, the helicopter completed its landing and tower called us back, clearing us to taxi.
“Um, Tower, Torque 58 . . . we’re going to have to hold position here for a minute . . .”
To this day I still debate whether I should have flat out told the tower that our pilot was in the back peeing. I’m sure the smarter outside observers gathered as much when they noticed the small stream of liquid emitted from the urinal drain tubes . . .
Still fuming but at least more comfortable, Chris slid back in the seat and taxied us to the parking apron, careful to park in an accessible spot. After the fifty-six paratroopers disembarked, I left my seat to visit the Port-a-Potty next to the ramp (I have a lot more restraint than Chris, it seems). When I returned from my short field trip, the loadmasters had already boarded the next set of fifty-six paratroopers that would be returning to our home base with us. I stared down the aisle of large men in flak vests and helmets, holding their weapons and large backpacks in their laps, knees overlapping and completely blocking the aisle. My goal – returning to my seat at the front of the plane – required that I find a way past this sea of green, brown, and tan.
After a few moments of helpless staring, I removed my gun holster from around my waist and proceeded to crawl across the knees of the paratroopers. Standing on their legs seemed too heartless and potentially too painful for them, so instead I held my holster and gun up with one arm and pulled myself across their knees with the other, laughing and telling them I loved them all throughout the entire ordeal. I’m not the type of person to take advantage of a man’s vulnerability to femininity, but . . . I was relying pretty heavily on the knowledge that these men had been practically without female interaction for at least six months, possibly a year, and even if I had decided that their knees looked like a good traveling surface, it was the most action they’d gotten in months. I’m certain if my hand had slipped too far up one of their legs, there would have been absolutely no protest. Chris’s traverse of the human bridge extracted grumbles and frowns; mine generated smiles and witty comments (most of which I couldn’t hear over the rumble of the engines, which was probably a good thing). Once safe in my copilot seat, I gave the crew a brief synopsis of my quick decision making . . . Surprise, it turns out there’s a much better way to do what I did without stepping on a bunch of soldiers that involves monkey-barring across the top of the seat stanchions. I still maintain that my way was more fun.
The frustration of the Great Reversing Debacle had begun to fade, and as the loadmasters finished the ERO the front end began planning our departure and return to home base. Just as Chris was readying himself to brief, Whitny, our senior loadmaster, called over interphone.
“Um, Pilot, just so you know, I busted my head open on a device.” Her tone was nonchalant and silence followed her comment as the crew tried to decide how to react. Chris was the first to speak.
“Well, are you okay?”
“There’s a lot of blood.”
“Okay.” A short pause. “Are you good to press back home?”
“Yeah. Jess is getting my first aid kit.” Jess is our other loadmaster (have you been counting the number of girls on the crew?), and as it turns out, becomes squeamish at the sight of blood. Chris sat in silence for a few seconds before unbuckling and swinging like a camouflaged primate back to where Whitny sat behind a cargo pallet, hiding her wounded head from the paratroopers crowding the back end.
There was, indeed, a copious amount of blood. It covered Whitny’s face, the cargo compartment floor, the extra T-shirt Whitny had pressed to the three-inch gash down the middle of her forehead. Jess stood frozen, attempting to take instructions from Whitny that involved finding her first aid kit, removing the gauze, and beginning a makeshift bandaging job. Chris’s arrival relieved Jess of the unsavory job, and he wrapped Whitny’s head like a turban until she looked like some weird military imitation of a Middle Easterner.
After performing this heroic, life-saving feat (it looked a little bit like a five-year-old had decided Whitny would be a good dress-up subject), Chris returned to the cockpit. After a quick request to our home squadron to have a flight surgeon awaiting our arrival, we completed our checklists and took off, homeward bound. Whitny went straight to the hospital after landing and earned twelve stitches and a scar to rival Harry Potter’s (yes, I was jealous – don’t tell me you wouldn’t be, too). We replaced her with a standby loadmaster . . . and kept flying. Just another day at the war, except this particular day included a lot more self-induced difficulties than usual.
That day wound up indicating just how lucky I am to be on this particular crew. We all reached moments of frustration as stupid oversights and silly decisions created more work, not to mention more embarrassment than any of our Type A personalities are equipped to deal with . . . but no more than twelve hours later, our conversations erupted in laughter about Chris’s pea-sized bladder and Whitny’s self-mutilation tendencies (she hit herself in the face with a large piece of metal, I mean, seriously). What could have been a nightmare that only warranted forgetting turned into a crew bonding experience, not to mention a great story.