Like so many other military bases, Dobbins AFB was built in the country and is now in the city. Highway 41, once it sleepy Georgia blacktop known only to truck drivers and blues singers, has turned into Cobb Parkway, a major thoroughfare that ‘runs out of Atlanta and right past Dobbins’s main gate. Every morning and every afternoon, it is clogged with commuters clawing their way from the bedroom communities of Cobb County to the big city and back again. Just up the road is Marietta’s reluctant landmark, the Big Chicken, an obscenely huge architectural impression of a bull rooster squatting atop a fried chicken franchise.
Civilization is squeezing in on Dobbins from almost every side. Only a cemetery on the southwest end of the base has stopped the propagation of apartment complexes, fast food restaurants, and strip shopping centers that have risen almost daily from the red Georgia day. To the north, the green haunches of Kennesaw Mountain mark the frontiers of development. During the Civil War. Johnston dueled with Sherman across the Kennesaw to keep the Northern invaders out. Now, at sundown, the invasion heads the other way as modern-day workers front the city journey north past Dobbins to their homes in the Piedmont.
Inside the perimeter, members of the Air Force Reserve’s 700th Tactical Airlift Squadron are preparing for another kind of journey. Seven of the unit’s eight new C- 130H aircraft, all sporting the new European I tactical camouflage paint scheme, roost on the ramp next to Dobbins’s 10.000-foot runway. In the fading autumn sun, the lizard” paint jobs take on a somber cast, the grays and greens running together to give the illusion of seven solid little mountains in the shade of the Kennesaw.
Lots of Practice
Into the maw of one of’ the aircraft, airmen in olive drab load equipment—and each other. This flight is it casualty evacuation (casevac) exercise for the 641h Aeromedical Evacuation Flight. The Air Force has a philosophy of providing as much medical attention to battlefield casualties as quickly as possible. Studies have shown the attention given to a patient on his way 10 the hospital can have as much and in some cases more impact on his chances of survival than the care he gets in the hospital.
But it takes practice—lots of practice. Medicine is different at altitude. Pressure causes problems with coagulation and complicates the care of patients with respiratory problems. And, of course, most hospital staffs don’t have to deal with it shaking, roaring, crowded aircraft.
So, with great regularity, the flight nurses and medical technicians of the 64th take to the skies to rehearse for war. Lacking any real casualties (the Air Force’s passion for realistic training has not stretched to the point of inflicting injury just for the sake of verisimilitude), they practice on each other. There are about two dozen passengers on the flight. On the way out, half of them will play the part of battlefield casualties, feigning symptoms ranging from heart failure to mental disturbance. On the way hack, they switch roles.
The passengers—those not strapped on stretchers rigged in the middle of the aircraft—buckle upon the long canvas benches for takeoff, slouching tinder the blood-red webbing that climbs up the sides of the cabin like Georgia kudzu. Up front, the crew goes through the preflight checklist quickly, but without hurry. There’s nothing perfunctory about it: the pilot, copilot, and flight engineer actually listen to one another, articulate the calls, and listen for responses. But they don’t expect any trouble with the aircraft and don’t find any. Dobbins ground crews are known for their proficiency.
Biggest and Busiest
The Hercules is soon rolling by Air Force Plant Six, the huge Lockheed facility where the C-130s are hatched. The C-513s are made here, too; there’s the towering “cathouse” where the Galaxys’ tails are grafted to the rest of the aircraft. The Air Force’s fleet of C-141 StarLifters was also manufactured at Lockheed-Georgia, in the seventy-six acres of production floor space that make the place one of the largest aircraft manufacturing plants in the world.
Having the factory across the runway is convenient in a number of ways. For instance, in addition to ensuring that a good-sized pool of capable maintenance workers is available, its proximity means that the 700th had the shortest ferry trip in history when it became the first Reserve squadron to receive the new H-model Herky Birds.
The 700th isn’t the only unit on the base with new aircraft. The 116th TFW of the Georgia Air National Guard is getting set to trade in their F-4s for F-15 Eagles. Dobbins is also home of the 700th TAS’s parent unit, the 94th Tactical Airlift Wing (AFRES), and its parent unit, Fourteenth Air Force (Reserve).
There’s also an Army National Guard unit (flying OV-1 Mohawks), an Army Reserve aviation unit (flying Huey choppers), a Marine Reserve aviation unit (flying OV-10 Broncos and Sea Cobra attack helicopters), and, as if that weren’t enough, an entire Naval air station, complete with its own Reserve A-7 squadron. All of these aircraft cover a considerable amount of ground at the other end of Dobbins’s interminable runway. Add to this total the anthill of ground organizations specializing in support, maintenance, security, communications, plant liaison, and just about every thing else needed to keep the flying units flying, and it becomes apparent why the traffic on Dobbins’s two miles of runway sometimes resembles the gridlock on Highway 41 just over the fence.
The whole thing has sent base public-affairs officers scurrying for statistics to support their belief that this must surely be the biggest and busiest base in the Reserve system. A couple of years ago, they counted an average of about 6,000 launches and recoveries a month. Since then, counting has been tough because of even greater volume.
Into the Sunset
Eva 02 is barely noticed as it lifts off the runway. Wheels come up, and a slow turn into the sunset sends red light glaring through the Herk’s glass nose and streaming across the cockpit. Once out of the tentacles of the busy Atlanta air control system, the flight settles down to a steady, throbbing, chilly drone.
The mission is not a complicated one. It’s a five-hour flight to nowhere, our destination an imaginary point above the Gulf of Mexico. One of the two navigators on board, a former F-4 WSO, needs some over-the-water navigational air squares filled, so he’s spent most of the afternoon plotting a course that will take us across Alabama, past New Orleans, out over the Gulf, and back. The other navigator is an old C-130 hand, just along in case he’s needed. As it turns out, the new guy has everything under control.
Where we’re going is of no concern to the medical teams in back. They are, literally, along for the ride and are too busy to worry about where Eva 02 is headed. Any messages between the cockpit and cabin can be passed through the load-master slouched at the end of the starboard bulkhead. He is seemingly oblivious to the goings-on, yet quietly connected to the flight by means of a long IC umbilical.
Some topics for cockpit chatter tonight are, in no particular order, the relative merits of Japanese vs. American cars, Air Force regulations, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, celestial bodies, Cajun food, and an account of a particularly harrowing exercise mission flying ammunition into an air base in the Italian Alps during a sudden and violent thunderstorm.
Far from being distracting, the conversation keeps the crew alert while Eva 02 drills four holes through the Gulf darkness. The whole thing may seem like a milk run, a flagpole mission. But it’s an interesting flight for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, these guys are the best in the world at what they do. And they’ve got a trophy to prove it. A team from Dobbins, representing the 94th TAW, took home first place in the most recent Volant Rodeo, a kind of Olympics for airlifters. They beat out thirty-three other entrants, including active-duty units, other Reserve and National Guard teams, and even a half-dozen foreign competitors.
But you wouldn’t know it from their low-key manner. Fighter pilots make a big point of drawing the line between “jet jocks” and “trash-haulers,” and, in truth, there is a big difference. In the fighter business, style is everything.
But with the transport pilots—and it took this writer a while to get a handle on this—it’s the absence of flamboyance that determines the hipness quotient. Fighter pilots like to rehash the thrill and danger—real or imagined—of their latest exploit. But to the airlifter—even if he has just returned from delivering matchsticks to Hell—any mention of the mission in terms other than “nominal” or “routine” is considered bad taste. They like to be on time. They don’t cotton to stress to the airframe or the aircrew. They’re fans of safety, and they don’t care who knows it.
Yes, they live in their own world, just as the fighter pilots do. And they share the potential of war and death with their faster brothers. If anything, the tactical airlift mission demands more glands than high CAP; most fighter pilots would not feel comfortable shoving an unarmed, extremely large aircraft over the rocks in maneuvers that many experts feel could not—or should not—be done. But whereas some fighter jocks try to boost their own egos at the expense of MAC drivers, the transport pilots signal their status by flaunting their complete disregard of what the zoomers may think of them.
Case in point: Consider the plastic spoon traditionally carried in the sleeve pockets of transport pilots, that universal focus of fighter pilot ridicule. The men of the 700th recently got chewed out for sporting the spoons—it didn’t look good, said the old man; after all, we are champions, etc., etc. But what the CO didn’t realize—and what the fighter pilots have never twigged on to—is that the plastic spoon is never used. The galley aboard a C-130 is about as extensive as your average recreational vehicle anyway, and certainly the life of the transport pilot, as seen by most fighter pilots—i.e., an airline without stewardesses where one watches the autopilot instead of the in-flight movie—is pure fiction.
The plastic spoon is a symbol, but not in the way outsiders think. In the smooth, white spoons, all the manly derision of the fighter pilots is reflected back at them. “Go ahead,” the MAC crews say, “have your fun. We don’t even care what you think. Now, who’s zooming who, ace?”
Depth = Total Force
The second point to be made can be summed up in one word: depth. The same factor that allows some professional football teams to make the playoffs year after year makes the American armed forces the strongest in the world. The Soviet Union has more planes, perhaps, and even more pilots. But they’re not as good. And the aircraft and crews of other nations may be just as good as those in the US, but they don’t have nearly as many of them. No other country in the world has as many good pilots and good planes as the United States.
Depth is just another word for Total Force. And that’s what makes the flight of Eva 02 significant. It’s not just this one mission. It’s all the missions flown by this plane, and this crew, and all the other aircraft at Dobbins, and all the other American aircraft and crews all around the world.
Depth is not easy to come by. It’s an expensive, sometimes dangerous, and not always exciting routine. But history has shown that depth wins wars. It can even help prevent them.
And that’s what Eva 02 is doing above the Gulf of Mexico this autumn night, flying in formation with thousands of other unseen aircraft, filling their spot in the mosaic of Total Force.
Michael Skinner is an aviation writer and the author of three books: USAFE: A Primer for Air Combat in Europe, Red Flag: Air Combat for the ’80s, and USN: Naval Operations in the 1980s. His most recent contribution to AIR FORCE Magazine was “Bogies in the Night,” which appeared in the February 1985 issue. Mr. Skinner is currently working on his first novel.