The Airlifters’ War

Feb. 1, 2010

Darting through the shadows of the C-130 cargo bay, MSgt. William Raby made last-minute adjustments to the cargo pallets straining against their web constraints. He nodded at a voice in his earphones. The floor tipped up sharply, and six tons of tightly packaged Gator-ade, frozen meals, Snapple, ammunition, spare parts, and other items slid out into the night and swung beneath a billowing chute.

Raby is a 34-year veteran Ohio Air National Guard loadmaster. He has deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan seven times. He scampered around the cargo bay, climbing out by the rear ramp where the slipstream roared and the ground moved along barely visible several hundred feet below, cutting and slicing away at bits of webbing, clearing the way for the next multiton load, poised behind him in the cargo bay.

C-130 airdrops food and water to marines at a forward base in Afghanistan. (USAF photo)

Everything has to go perfectly. The cargo is packed in heavy green nylon and strapped onto pallets and impact-absorbing cardboard honeycomb, rigged to the right size chute. The drop point has to be calculated precisely, with due accounting of the wind. The load must slide out without getting snagged and the chute must snap open properly. If it’s a “streamer”—a tangled chute that fails to open—the troops get a cargo of wreckage. And it all has to go quickly.

“We don’t want to linger out here where there are bad guys with big guns,” Raby shouted with a wink. “One minute!” the navigator intoned on the intercom, as the C-130 banked sharply and its nose lifted.

“C’mon, Loads,” someone said to Raby, using his nickname.

“Forty seconds,” the navigator announced, and the seconds ticked away as Raby scrambled to safety. And at an unseen but precise point in the sky, the second load skidded silently out into the night air, floating down and away toward a cluster of isolated American troops anxiously awaiting their resupply. “Four bundles away, no streamers,” Raby reported.

This operation—this complicated concert of parachute riggers, pallet handlers, loaders, and aircrews—is a largely unseen but critical mission in the war in Afghanistan. Without it, the Obama Administration’s war strategy would falter. It is the unmatched ability of the United States to deliver critical war supplies precisely, on time, and without fail that enables small US troop units to break away from their large bases and still be assured of the food, water, and ammunition they need to live and operate.

This key element in the US counterinsurgency strategy also provides aid for Afghanistan’s population, which is scattered in thousands of rural villages and in deep mountain valleys.

The C-130 operation is merely the neighborhood delivery system of a vast global network which also uses C-5 and C-17 strategic lifters to create an unprecedented air bridge into Afghanistan. This aerial artery carries an unending stream of troops, munitions, water, concertina wire, rations, fresh blood, heavy armored trucks, filing cabinets, relocatable buildings, and everything else needed for a long military campaign.

A typical leg takes cargo from Charleston AFB, S.C., to Ramstein AB, Germany, for refueling and a crew change, then on into Kabul. At Charleston, loadmasters guided two heavy armored trucks—MRAPs, or mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles—up the ramp and into the vast hold of a C-5. At 60,000 pounds, MRAPs are so heavy that their precise placement inside the fuselage is critical to avoid tipping the giant aircraft on its tail or nose.

Capt. Don Rolleg on a C-130 mission over Afghanistan. (USAF photo by SSgt. James L. Harper Jr.)

Inevitably, something will go wrong and the Air Force’s mobility airmen are forced to improvise.

This C-5 flight, for instance, left its home base at Westover Air Reserve Base in western Massachusetts five hours late due to an elevator relay problem. En route to Charleston, the airplane lost cabin pressure and the crew quickly donned air masks and dropped to a lower altitude. They landed to find a broken strut, which took another five hours to fix.

The 10-hour delay caused schedulers at the Tanker Airlift Control Center at Scott AFB, Ill., to spring into action. Eventually, the C-5’s loadmaster announced his satisfaction with the load, and the TACC adjusted the flight’s schedule.

A thunderstorm then forced another delay. The skies cleared just as a fire detection warning light winked on; the system had to be checked and fixed, a problem the crew thought they’d have to fly to Dover AFB, Del., to solve. But soon, a technician appeared and quietly fixed the indicator light problem. At long last, the C-5 departed for Ramstein and on to Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.

The TACC manages the global operations of airlifters and tankers, and “it doesn’t matter how well you did the day before, you gotta do it again today perfectly,” Lt. Col. Aaron Gittner, chief of the TACC commander’s action group, said last year.

C-130s with the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing line the ramp at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. (USAF photo by SrA. Felicia Juenke)

Experience, Guts, and Zeal

That it all goes so smoothly is a tribute to the hard work and experience the Air Force has gained during the almost two decades it has been at war in the US Central Command region of operations.

But it’s not just experience that counts. Airmen at all levels are zealous to get the job done. The people on the ground—whether refugees or isolated American troops—are depending upon the Air Force-delivered supplies.

Brig. Gen. Randy A. Kee, vice commander of the TACC, typified the airmen’s drive. He flew C-130 missions delivering humanitarian supplies to Sarajevo during the worst fighting of the Bosnia war. Landing amid mortar bursts, Kee kept thinking, “We gotta win this. Help keep these people alive.”

The same mix of experience, guts, and zeal is needed for the airlift job into and around Afghanistan. Heavily loaded C-130s dodge fighters, unmanned drones, commercial 747 cargo liners, transport and attack helicopters, and even occasional artillery shells. They squeeze through Afghanistan’s high mountain passes and battle heat, blinding dust, heavy winds, fading radios, and inevitable schedule snafus. Missions last up to 12 hours only on paper.

A flight last year with a C-130 crew from the Missouri Air National Guard included Maj. Chuck Newton, a former Marine pilot who flew Harriers on active duty. The flight, ISAF 44, was scheduled to lift off from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, at 5:30 a.m. At 3:30 a.m., Newton and Capt. Cade Keenan were already on site, and explained to a reporter that they were waiting for “HR.”

Soldiers jump from a C-17 Globemaster III during an exercise at the Nevada Test and Training Range. (USAF photo by TSgt. Michael R. Holzworth)

We Can Save Lives

This turned out to be “human remains,” an Afghan who had passed away at the Bagram hospital and whose body was to be flown home on the short hop to Kabul.

Past sunup, the remains had not shown up, and ISAF 44 was told to take off anyway. Minutes later, wheels down on final approach into Kabul, the flight deck got a text message: Come back and pick up the remains. The message was, for the moment, ignored.

At Kabul, several dozen Afghan soldiers in stiff new fatigues lined up to board the C-130. Keenan and Newton conferred: Should they hold the Afghan troops and fly back just for the HR, or tell Bagram, no way? They told Bagram, no way.

As the Afghans clambered aboard, smiling bravely but clutching airsick bags, a text message from Bagram arrived: Forget the HR.

In Kandahar, the C-130 needed fuel. No fuel truck was in sight, and Keenan, grumbling, went stomping off in search of one. Hours later, fueled and loaded, the C-130 headed back toward Kabul, where heavy winds had churned up a dust storm. Keenan got the C-130 onto the ground, but the crosswinds were too fierce to take off again. A delay of even 90 minutes meant the crew would exceed the maximum allowable time on flight duty, requiring 13 hours of rest before they could fly again.

Waiting to see if the wind would abate, the crew dozed in the parked C-130, which rocked gently in the gusts. Suddenly, Keenan bounded up the ramp. “We’re going,” he shouted, and minutes later, ISAF 44 was airborne.

It had been 16 hours since the crew gathered for the flight. But the cargo was delivered and the crew did its part to get reinforcements and supplies to the ground troops, which is what mattered.

“You know, apart from being with my wife,” said Newton, “there is absolutely nothing I’d rather be doing than this.”

Loadmasters with the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron watch over air-dropped pallets of supplies from the back of a C-17 over Afghanistan. (USAF photo by SSgt. Shawn Weismiller)

Aerial resupply is critical because maintaining a supply line on Afghanistan’s treacherous roads is difficult and dangerous. Since the war began more than eight years ago, 387 Americans have been killed and 2,189 wounded on Afghan roads, mostly by improvised bombs. The skyrocketing demand for other war materiel has outrun the capacity of military trucks and convoys, so local truckers are hired to haul nonlethal supplies.

Thanks to bandits, insurgent attacks, and breakdowns, it takes an average of 21 days for local truckers to struggle from Bagram Airfield, where cargo flights arrive from the US and Europe, to Kandahar, the staging base for allied forces in southern Afghanistan. In winter, an Army logistics officer said, it can take twice as long.

“Airlift keeps people off the road, and we can save lives,” Gen. Arthur J. Lichte, the commander of Air Mobility Command, said before he retired in January.

Running on Adrenaline

Increasing the US and NATO military force in Afghanistan requires more airplanes, and that means airlifters, tankers, and their crews work harder. “You put boots on the ground, they need supplies, and airlift requirements go up,” Lichte said. Last year, monthly airdrop totals over Afghanistan grew from 1.4 million pounds in January to 1.8 million in April to 3.2 million in June before growing even larger.

“We’re running on adrenaline and three hours of sleep a night,” MSgt. Dave Vesper, a C-130 loadmaster, shouted one night as he helped push pallets into an aircraft hold. Vesper, an Air National Guardsman from Mansfield, Ohio, volunteered for an assignment in Operation Enduring Freedom.

In fact, Air Guard crews fly the majority of intratheater airlift over Afghanistan. On rotations of 30, 60, or 90 days, they transit their C-130s from their home states, fly airlift missions four to six times a week, then swap out with another Guard crew before making their three-stop flight back home.

It’s an expensive shuttle, at $14,762 per C-130 flight hour, but there is no other way the Air Force can meet the demand. In the first 11 months of 2009, airlifters dropped 27.2 million pounds of supplies to troops in Afghanistan, compared to 16.6 million pounds in all of 2008. During the height of the fighting season, in August 2009, C-130s dropped 3.8 million pounds—more than twice as much as the 1.6 million pounds dropped in August 2008.

At Bagram Airfield, Army Specialist Joshua Vazquez pulls straps holding a pallet, in preparation for an airdrop mission over Afghanistan. (USAF photo by TSgt. John Jung)

That doesn’t count the routine air hops which take C-130s from Bagram to Kandahar to Kabul and back, ferrying troops and supplies, including 15,000 pounds a day of US mail.

The airlift statistics are staggering in part because the air bridge to Afghanistan is almost invisible. Airlifters lift off from East Coast ports at Charleston and Dover, routinely carrying 350 tons of cargo into Afghanistan. The cost is substantial: $44,351 an hour, according to the Air Force. For this reason, even though Afghanistan is a landlocked country, most MRAPs go by sea and on into Afghanistan through Pakistan.

Wear and tear on aircraft is substantial, and these are not new airplanes. The typical C-5 is more than 30 years old; the workhorse aerial tankers, the KC-135s, average almost 50 years.

For this geriatric fleet, every flight is critical. There are very few empty shuttle legs. Return trips bring out troops scheduled for leave, who are returning home from their tours, and the dead and injured. By the end of October 2009, air mobility flights had taken 67,000 patients to Europe and on home to the United States.

David Wood is the national security correspondent for Politics Daily. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Holding Fire Over Afghanistan,” appeared in the January issue.