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Airmen support Soldiers with airdrop

by Capt. Carlos Diaz
386th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

8/4/2005 - SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFPN) -- To keep yet another convoy off the road, 386th Air Expeditionary Wing aircrews at this forward-deployed location recently gave a textbook example of what agile combat support is all about.

Several C-130 Hercules airdropped more than 69,000 pounds of Meals, Ready to Eat to U.S. and Iraqi Soldiers engaged in combat operations against Iraqi insurgents.

“I’ve never felt more like I was supporting the troops than when I did this airdrop,” said 1st Lt. Anta Plowden, a 737th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron C-130 co-pilot. “The troops (who) we’re helping are on the front lines of Operation Iraqi Freedom putting their lives on the line, and we’re their lifeline. It’s just an awesome feeling; we’re dropping food and supplies so that the Soldiers can fight another day.”

The lieutenant, who is deployed from Pope Air Force Base, N.C., said at first he was surprised about being selected for the combat airdrop mission but that training took over before, during and after the airdrop.

“When I was first told that I was chosen to be part of this mission, I was a little shocked and very nervous,” he said. “I thought there were many more experienced co-pilots (who) could’ve been picked instead of me. The first thing I did was pull out all of my flight publications and read everything there was on airdrop because I didn’t want to mess anything up.

“I know it sounds silly, but by the time the mass briefing was over, I wasn’t nervous anymore; it was something that we’ve all trained for, and I knew that we could do this,” he said.

Long before the doors of the C-130 opened and the 48 bundles rolled into the darkness from 600 feet above the ground, a detailed planning process dissected the mission with up-to-the-minute accuracy.

Aircrews were given information that provided them with situational awareness needed to enter a hostile environment. Some of that information included satellite imagery, terrain elevation, enemy threat information and lunar illumination at the drop zone.

“The Air Mobility Division at the Combined Air Operations Center tasked us with this mission, and as a weapons officer my job is to develop a plan to accomplish the mission while mitigating the risk to the aircrew,” said Maj. Ryan D’Andrea, a C-130 weapons officer assigned to the 386th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron.

During the planning process, there was constant communication between mission planners like Major D’Andrea and air mobility liaison officers to provide Army commanders’ firsthand knowledge on how to use airlift.

Once the planners put the pieces of the puzzle together, the crews were briefed on the intricate details of the mission, and then they waited until the wheels were up.

The crews selected for this mission have been flying to Iraq daily to move people and equipment, but for the majority of them, this was their maiden airdrop in a combat zone.

“This is my first airdrop in a combat environment, but as for this and every other environment, it’s the same: the checklists and crew coordination,” said Tech Sgt. Brian Beaty, a 737th EAS evaluator loadmaster. “The only difference is that maybe someone will try to shoot us down.”

For a mission like this, the loadmasters were engaged in a variety of tasks in the aircraft’s cargo compartment.

“We scan the aircraft for anything wrong, check and ensure the cargo remains secure for the flight, and keep the pilot and engineer up to date with the things we see in the back,” Sergeant Beaty said. “In a combat environment, we’ll also be positioned to scan outside the aircraft for any kind of threat like surface-to-air missiles, anti-(aircraft) artillery, other aircraft, and just as important as the rest, the ground.”

During the airdrop, loadmasters checked to make sure nothing would stop the airdrop system or cargo from exiting safely, Sergeant Beaty said.

“For the rest of the airdrop (the loadmasters) are the backup in case anything goes wrong,” Sergeant Beaty said. “Whether it’s to cut the cargo loose or secure the cargo from exiting at all, we make sure that our aircraft is safe and ensure everything is ready for the next the phase of flight -- the landing.”

Before the crews actually landed, they needed to deliver their cargo to the Soldiers on the ground.

“At the one-minute advisory my main concern is that all the checklists are completed and that we’re cleared to drop,” said Senior Airman Evan Britton, a 737th EAS instructor loadmaster.

The young loadmaster said that during this part of the airdrop, the aircraft flies low and slow, which is the perfect opportunity for the enemy on the ground to try to shoot it down. Also, if the checklist is not completed by the time they get to the drop zone, or they are not cleared to drop, then they have to come back around and do it again.

“I feel good that we can get these supplies to the more remote areas in Iraq and reduce the number of convoys that are required,” Airman Britton said. “Also, I know that a lot of the Soldiers on the ground receiving these supplies are the same ones (who) I airlifted into theater not long ago. There is a special sense of camaraderie that comes from that.”

“The crews did an outstanding job,” said Lt. Col. David Uselman, 738th EAS commander. “I expected nothing less out of these warriors and wasn’t surprised by the results. This is what they train to do, so when given the chance to do it in combat, they were ready and well prepared.

“Every other crew wanted to be apart of it but we could only select a few,” he said. “We prepare and train at home constantly to hone our airdrop capability, but rarely get the opportunity to do it in combat. It’s like a baseball team that plays practice game after practice game but never the real game. When the opportunity presents itself, everyone wants to be out on the field.”

The colonel said that without the total-force effort of the active-duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, the mission would be hard to accomplish.

“We’re a total-force fighting team with two-thirds of our fleet residing in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve,” Colonel Uselman said. “When I look at the crews in the 738th EAS, I don’t see ANG or active duty, I see one interchangeable team. To me, it’s a real success story of our total force -- one team, one fight.”

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