Flying in combat is different. We train at home, filling our days with formation briefings and checkrides, flying 5-hour sorties and returning home before dinner. The primary focus of our flights is the actual stick-and-rudder flying – low-levels 300 feet above the ground, multiple assault landings in a row, three or four training airdrops in a day. The flights are busy, but routine; we have one assault zone and two drop zones in the Little Rock area, and rarely venture from that comfort zone. We survey our semi-annual requirements before each flight, determining training priorities and choreographing the sortie to ensure maximum “bean” accomplishment. We pack fresh sandwiches and fruit for an in-flight lunch, and let our minds stray from tactical approach planning to paperwork deadlines and grocery lists. Flying is a part of our job at home, something we do once or twice a week (at least as an hours-deprived copilot), in addition to cleaning the house, walking the dog, spending long hours on worthless computer-based training modules, and socializing on weekends. Airdrops and tactical approaches are fun for a few moments, but are quickly forgotten after landing as normal life carries on.
Here, we live to fly. I work for 12-14 hours at a time, and everything centers around our fly period, from when and what I eat to how hard I exercise. I show to the brief and from that moment, I focus on the mission. There are no beans, no training priorities. Big Blue hands down an assignment and the six of us pile into a forty-year-old airplane and go do it. Even our days off depend on our days of flying – we sleep based on our next expected alert, even if three days will pass before we take off again. I visit the squadron at least once, normally more, when I’m not flying to check our schedule for the next day and prepare for the next mission. My squadron-mates tell stories of unusual flying occurrences and engage in debates over the best way to handle various situations. There is no queep (or at least, very little), and certainly very little personal life outside of flying. Sure, there are Masters degrees and gym trips, but there is no cooking, no cleaning, no laundry, no errands and no social obligations.
At home, a standard sortie includes at least three formation routes, two of them visual low-levels, culminating in airdrops, and followed by pilot proficiency events for an hour or so at the end. For Herk drivers, airdrops are not out-of-the-ordinary; they are a daily training requirement. I can’t even count the number I’ve done, and I’ve only been flying the Herk for a little over a year.
But not the combat airdrop.
This is what we train for, this is why we spend countless hours studying and briefing and flying and kicking random training loads out of airplanes – for the chance to successfully perform a combat airdrop. Before this deployment I had spoken to various older crewmembers who flew in the glory days of Operation Enduring Freedom, when a crew deployed for four months might carry out twenty or thirty drops. They supplied food, water, and ammunition to troops living in remote FOBs, sometimes under fire and many times with no other way to survive. Airdrops remove convoys from roads riddled with IEDs and guerrilla insurgents, and they require aircrew skill and aircraft capability held by a small number of the total Air Force. Combat airdrops take the otherwise unglamorous and sometimes quirky airlift world and transform it into an essential wartime asset, beloved by the Army and Marine troops whose fighting capacity would be compromised without it.
They used to be plentiful, combat airdrops – aircrews returned home with stories of dropping at high-threat drop zones (DZs) at night, in the weather, escaping into the night with tracer rounds dancing after them. Not so anymore. We arrived in January after six months of extensive mountain low-level and high-altitude airdrop training, only to discover that our squadron was assigned approximately one airdrop each month. My crew would be lucky to get even one, a mentality foreign to the third- and fourth-time deployers who executed one airdrop each week.
Three of my crewmembers are on what is probably their last C-130 deployment. Chris recently received a promotion to major and is headed to a staff tour over the summer, meaning he may never return to the world of 4-month flying deployments; desk jobs and planning agencies darken his doorstep. Jamie and Landry’s crew positions are in danger of obsolescence as our trusty H model is replaced by the shiny new J, whose new technology and advanced automation don’t require a navigator or engineer. Their chances of deploying in the Herk again are pretty much zero. Jamie has deployed in the Herk before and executed combat airdrops, but Landry is a new engineer on his first C-130 deployment, and though Chris has deployed numerous times, none of his travels included the chance to drop overseas. It was now or never for our crew to check the combat airdrop box.
Our crew deployed as the second priority for any airdrops our squadron was lucky enough to win (Air Mobility Division, or AMD, assigns them to the J model squadron as well as C-17s, a much bigger, strategic airlift asset). A few weeks into the deployment, our tactics shop began to buzz with the excitement of our squadron’s first airdrop. The crew with higher priority contained a major about to make an extreme career shift and a high-time navigator with extensive combat airdrop experience about to take a staff position. They executed the drop flawlessly, and my crew listened to their stories, expressing excitement and congratulations for their achievement.
But we itched for a chance of our own.
We visited the tactics shop nearly every day for the next two weeks. It became an obsession, the longing to claim a combat airdrop, an addiction that could never be sated. Hints of possible drops filtered down to our squadron, but they all disintegrated into assignments to other squadrons or simply disappeared from the list of plans. Life events had shortened Chris’s time with us – instead of four months, he was leaving after two – and we watched the days slip away, each without an airdrop.
Then, one day during a routine flight brief, our chief tactician poked his head around the door just long enough to say, “We got one.” Our flight that day was filled with electric anticipation, wondering when the drop would be, and where, and whom we would resupply. A combat airdrop. It was becoming a reality, this mythical event that has eluded so many in the Herk community, some for entire twenty-year careers. And we were going to get one
The drop was a mere five days away. We began coordinating our crew study, a very extensive dry run of the route, drop, and escape, including checklists, radio calls, terrain maps, and contingency plans. Our few days off focused on reviewing tactical procedures and airdrop regulations.
Two days before the drop and a day prior to the crew study, Jamie and I walked into the squadron, killing time in our typical deployed fashion. Our Director of Operations (DO), the number two in any squadron and in charge of managing mission accomplishment and success, was seated behind the front desk.
“Are you mad at me?” he asked with his characteristic half-smile.
Brow furrowed and head cocked, I replied, “Why would we be mad at you?”
“Did you hear the news?”
We shook our heads.
“Well . . . Chris probably wants to tell you . . . but . . . you guys aren’t doing the airdrop.”
Our faces fell as the DO explained that in order to put us on the airdrop, he would have had to shift our schedule close to ten hours – not a problem in itself, but the crew that was already lined up to the airdrop schedule was fully qualified, complete with an instructor pilot and instructor navigator, both of whom were about to retire and neither of whom had ever done a combat airdrop. He just couldn’t justify the schedule switch.
A cloud hung over our crew and I contented myself with shooting an evil look at any of our replacements at every opportunity, while secretly harboring my raucous envy at their luck. Our time with Chris was dwindling; he began making plans to go home, packing his bags and talking about dates and modes of travel and when his last day as our AC would be. The odds of our crew getting an airdrop before returning home in May were high, but the odds of dropping with Chris in the left seat were rapidly decreasing. This being my first deployment, I have very little with which to compare my last three months of experiences, but based on our more seasoned crewmembers, the closeness of our crew is rare, almost unheard of. We work well together in the airplane, but more than that, we spend our off days studying together, watching movies, and generally enjoying each other’s company. I count Jamie, Landry, and Chris as good friends – not something that many find on a deployment. Our loadmasters are fun girls as well, but the age and maturity separation has kept them from joining most of our crew functions. Even this doesn’t hamper our crew relationship; there has been no animosity and very little disagreement between crewmembers. As exciting as the thought of executing a combat airdrop before the end of the deployment was, the idea of Chris’s absence tainted our eager anticipation.
And then . . . a week before Chris’s departure . . . another airdrop came our way. It was our turn, there was no question; as long as the airdrop happened, it would be our crew. The memory of two previous canceled drops kept our enthusiasm reined, but I could feel my heart flutter and the adrenaline flow more each day as the airdrop drew nearer. Tactics arranged a crew study and we flew through the drop, complete with 3-D satellite imaging of the route and run-in, radio frequencies, and checklist procedures. A dress rehearsal for aircrew. But the real show was a combat airdrop.
To use an airdrop as a resupply method means it is truly a last resort. It is more expensive, more time-intensive, more dangerous, and entails more uncertainty than nearly every other mode of cargo delivery. If there were a suitable airstrip at the field needing resupply, a simple airland mission would suffice. Some FOBs lack even roads for convoy resupply, or their roads are inaccessible during the winter months over high mountain passes. Not only are combat airdrops the pinnacle of C-130 flying, but they also bring with them a sense of urgency and vitality. A successful drop might mean the difference between eating balanced meals that week, or resorting to the emergency stash of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), a chemically-enhanced, starch-and-calorie saturated meal packet that I’m pretty sure has as much chalk and steroids as actual, edible food.
I awoke after a fitful night’s sleep dominated by bizarre dreams of airdrops and friends from home, a feeling of charged excitement coursing through me. One look at my crew upon arrival at the squadron told me they were all waging their own wars against random outbursts of excitement as well. We flew our empty C-130 to a base further south, closer to the drop zone, to load our bundles and do what we came here to do, the most appealing part of leaving our families, friends, homes, and lives, to travel to a tan and desolate third-world country containing a force of insurgents determined to rid the world of people just like us: the combat airdrop.
Airdrop loads are much different than simple cargo loads that are onloaded and offloaded in the safety of a parking apron with a slow-moving forklift. The force of extraction alone exerts a shock on the bundles, not to mention the hundreds of feet falling under parachute culminating in a bone-shattering impact as the bundle hits the ground. Different load weights require different rigging procedures, and these procedures require checking and double-checking, tying and retying, locking and relocking, until the crew and the riggers themselves rest assured that there will be no damage to the cargo itself. We spent two hours on the ground perfecting our load, visualizing our job for the thirty minutes after our next takeoff. Adrenaline coursed through me, my hands shook; I sat on the crew stairs outside the aircraft, staring across the flat expanse outside the base, incessantly bouncing one leg to provide an outlet for my excess energy. This was it, what we had waited for, and what might be our only chance to execute an airdrop in combat. This was it.
We took off, and immediately, our best-laid plans fell victim to the one thing we as aircrew wish we could control and will forever remain at the mercy of: weather. The clouds forced us lower than our planned and desired altitude, and I felt my eyes widen and my senses sharpen as we made ourselves more vulnerable to the threat of anti-aircraft fire. There were breaks in the clouds, but they filled enough of the sky to require us to stay below them in order to find the drop zone. This also made escaping from the drop zone more challenging: under normal flight rules, we were obligated to avoid the clouds, and if they fell and cornered us, we would be trapped in mountainous terrain, unable to see the ground or other aircraft in a situation where seeing both was essential. Chris’s and Jamie’s experience combined with the presence of my squadron commander who was standing for the drop made the crew feel comfortable continuing the mission, with an increased awareness of the changing weather and the proximity of the terrain.
We were six minutes from the drop zone. The last leg of our route, called the run-in, traversed a ridgeline that kicked unpredictable winds towards us, throwing our airplane like a sailboat on stormy waters. Chris held the plane as steady as he could, the importance of a stable platform to a successful drop the foremost concern of his mind. Jamie navigated, calling out times and deviations from course centerline, while I flipped my radio switch back and forth, attempting on three separate frequencies to contact the drop zone. They should have answered already. We rounded a corner and could see the huge expanse of land set aside for throwing random things out of airplanes. In the absence of radio contact, we were authorized to drop on a drop zone (DZ) marked by smoke . . . but there was no smoke. There was only empty space.
We continued our trek towards the DZ, holding drop altitude and airspeed, pointing at the intended point of impact, calling frantically on the radios, searching for smoke. We reached ten seconds to green light with no drop clearance.
“No drop,” Chris and Jamie called almost simultaneously, and a second passed as we moved across the drop zone before our squadron commander said, “Purple smoke.” Upon hearing our four fans of freedom echoing up the valley and my radio transmissions at ten-second intervals, the DZ controller had driven his truck to the edge of the zone to toss smoke, just ten seconds too late. We pulled into a right turn, in military fashion closing our current checklist before restarting the drop checklist.
This time, the drop was certain. The DZ controller cleared us to drop as we headed outbound, preparing the load and our own minds for the “Green Light” call. The aircraft doors were open and we remained unpressurized. I felt the weight of my armored vest and flight helmet as sweat dripped from my hairline and down my jaw. I leaned forward, poised for action, my right hand ready to turn on the green light that would activate the relay attached to the knife used to cut the restraint, the only thing holding the load in the aircraft, my left hand ready to increase our flap setting and move our slow aircraft further away from our stall speed. I waited, watched the countdown on our navigation system, listened to Jamie’s small adjustments: “Ten left, come right two degrees, twenty feet low . . .” Wind noise nearly drowned out our voices, but I could still feel myself, hear myself breathe.
“Five seconds . . . GREEN LIGHT!” Jamie called, in sync with the navigation system’s estimation of the correct release point. One little motion from my fingers, “On,” I replied, holding the switch firmly in place, unwilling to let any sloppy movement prevent a successful drop.
“Load clear!” from one of the loadmasters in the back. I moved the switch back, extinguishing the green lights scattered throughout the airplane and replacing them with red.
“Flaps,” from Chris this time. I moved the flap lever from its low setting back to fifty, lowering our nose and increasing the maneuverability of the airplane. Landry began to close the doors as Chris pulled the C-130 into a climbing right turn.
Static tumbled over the radio. “Torque 56, strike report available when you’re ready,” crackled through our headsets. I keyed the mic and told them to go ahead. “Strike report is a PI. See ya later.” We had hit the intended point of impact, or PI. We had dropped essential supplies to troops on the ground. We had executed a combat airdrop.
As we climbed away, I felt my shoulders relax and lower, when I hadn’t even realized how high I had tensed them in my concentration and anticipation. We turned to each other in the cockpit and slowly allowed ourselves to smile.
“Well done guys,” my squadron commander said from his position standing behind Chris’s seat. “Seriously, great job. Really well done.”
We were the football team that just won the Superbowl, the politician just elected president, the greatest aircrew to ever grace the C-130 with our presence. We had conquered the apex of the C-130 mission – an airdrop over a combat zone, a task that required the full extent of our skills, experience, study, and pure gut and instinct (combined with a good measure of luck). I felt elation, gratitude, humility that such a magnanimous task had fallen to me, a young copilot; incredulity that I could be counted as a part of this phenomenal crew. The flight home was a combination of unparalleled relief and a sense of gratification, that what we had trained and studied and ached for our respective years of Herk flying had actually, finally, materialized.
Airdrops have remained rare for our squadron, and there is no guarantee that my crew will get another in our final month of the deployment. Even if we don’t, every time I drop at home, I’ll remember why we train the way we do. I’ll be able to look past the office queep and recall that one glorious day – the day of the combat airdrop. If I never do another, it will make this one day that much more valuable, that much more sacred.