Pope C-130s Supply Beans and Bullets to Terror WarBy Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service WASHINGTON, April 26, 2004 -- They like to think of themselves as the "18- wheeler trucks" that supply the front lines in the war on terror.
C-130 Hercules aircraft crews from the 2nd and 41st Airlift Squadrons at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., deliver food, ammunition and troops throughout Southwest Asia. Unlike larger C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft that provide long-haul support to logistical hubs, C-130 crews perform the tactical portion of the airlift mission - often landing on rough dirt airstrips or airdropping troops and equipment into hostile areas.
"We can land anywhere," said Capt. Andy McGee, assistant director of operations and a C-130 pilot for the 2nd Airlift Squadron. "All we need is 3,000 feet (of runway)."
Airmen from the two squadrons work together as what McGee calls a "super squadron" to fly thousands of sorties throughout the theater. "We're putting the beans and bullets there to support the war on terror," said Master Sgt. Willie Wellbrock, tactics loadmaster and superintendent for the 2nd Airlift Squadron. In addition, the crews evacuate wounded troops from the battle zone.
A low-altitude combat drop over Afghanistan in September 2001 marked a variety of "firsts" for the airmen: the first time since the Vietnam War that Pope's C- 130s have conducted an airdrop at low altitude during combat, and the first combat drop of a container delivery system using night-vision goggles.
Since their introduction into the Air Force inventory four decades ago, the turboprop C-130s have earned their stripes on a full range of peacetime as wartime missions. What makes them so versatile is their ability to haul a wide variety of oversized cargo and to deliver their cargo into remote areas lacking fixed airport facilities.
"The vast majority of airlift in Iraq is C-130s," said McGee. "I guess you could call us the American Eagle airline of the theater."
Wellbrock said the C-130 crews in Southwest Asia conduct missions exactly as they train: flying in at a low level and spending minimal time "in the box" before taking off again to avoid becoming a target.
Even before Sept. 11, 2001, C-130 crews from the 2nd and 41st Airlift Squadrons were operating in Southwest Asia to provide logistical support for Operation Southern Watch, which enforced the no-fly zone over southern Iraq.
But McGee said the terrorist attacks made a big impact on the workload and the crews themselves. Sorties in the region no longer felt like "milk runs."
"After 9/11, we all felt that we had a true mission to go do," he said. "Everything we did became much more focused."
The operational tempo picked up dramatically, with crews sometimes pulling 18- to 20-hour workdays to fulfill mission requirements that continue around the clock, seven days a week.
McGee said this pace has sharpened the crews' skills while giving younger airmen far more experience than might be expected so early in their careers. "You'd be surprised how many loadmasters we have who have flown more than 100 combat missions and still aren't yet old enough to drink a beer," he said.
"Since 9/11, kids come in and mature so quickly," said Wellbrock. "They learn very early on that what we do is all about teamwork, with everybody relying on everybody else."
Wellbrock said crews keep motivated by seeing firsthand the contribution they're making and by getting the opportunity to apply their skills to support the war on terror. "It's rewarding to go do what we're trained to do," agreed McGee. "It validates everything we've been trained for."
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