Desert Airlift

Oct. 1, 2007

Looking for trouble under the squat hulk of a C-130 airlifter waiting to take off from Kuwait, SSgt. Michael James paused in the shadows beneath the tail. He cranked back his head, looked up to a point 15 feet above him, and squinted at a sliver of sky that was showing up where he thought it shouldn’t.

James, a 32-year-old from Ashland, Ky., is a veteran C-130 crew chief. His years on duty have given him an exasperated fondness for the old Hercules—and a keen awareness of potential problems. He glared at the crack between the horizontal stabilizer and elevator. The scorching dull yellow sun sent its rays back through the tiny gap.

James heaved a heavy sigh. “That’s just wrong,” he said to a young airman standing nearby. “Go get the ladder.”

Two platoons of infantrymen had been standing nearby, waiting to hitch a ride back to Iraq. They shifted from one boot to another, smoking and watching. Airmen swarmed over the aircraft, which has been in continuous service since Lyndon B. Johnson whipped Barry Goldwater in a Presidential election—that is, since 1964. Forty-three years later, on a parking apron near Kuwait’s border with Iraq, the soldiers knew it would be a long afternoon.

So goes a little noticed war that sets a dedicated band of C-130 air and ground crews and technicians against the relentless effects of time, weather, and hard use on USAF’s best-known airlifter. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s winning.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought attention to soldiers and marines, who are taking lots of casualties. Less noticed are the men and women who provide the air bridge enabling them to fight as they do. No other military in the world can fly people and cargo as far and as fast and as efficiently as can the American military. No one else can accomplish the astonishing choreography that enables C-130s to ferry rifles, spare tires, computer paper, blood, cash, ammo, and thousands of other items to bases around Iraq, and then shuttle weary troops out to Kuwait to meet homebound C-17s that gas up twice with tankers, orbiting at the right places and the right times, on their way back to American bases.

In addition, no one else could suddenly rescramble all of that careful timing to divert a C-17 into Balad Air Base in Iraq to transport a terribly wounded marine to Kuwait and on to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., with global tanker schedules rejiggered to support the marine’s flight home. That is exactly what airmen at the Tanker Airlift Control Center (TACC), Scott AFB, Ill., did last spring.

The Air Force’s unmatched mobility force, however, is up against some serious problems. Old aircraft such as the venerable C-130 are wearing out, just as the demand for airlift has risen dramatically at busy air bases feeding into Iraq and Afghanistan and the swarming wartime bases in those countries themselves.

Airmen say that it is like driving a 1964 Chevy on a daily work commute; you can do it, but the operating cost is high. The expense of running a fleet of C-130s is accelerating steadily, and concern about their stamina in this long war goes deep. This spring, Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne told a House panel about his concern that the Hercules’ wings will “crack and fall off.” The E models, which the Air Force began buying in 1962, are restricted from flying in Southwest Asia. Even the MC-130Es used in special operations force missions cannot exceed 90 flight hours without undergoing a major inspection. Maintainers pull their engines and strip the skin from the wings, a process that takes up to 36 hours.

Heroics Not Enough

“This is some tired iron,” said Maj. Gen. Ronald R. Ladnier, TACC commander.

Even with heroic labor and inspections, and with crews working long hours in the stupefying 130-degree heat and choking dust, there just aren’t enough mobility airplanes to fill the need in Southwest Asia. In the entire US Central Command area, one finds just 40 theater-range C-130s and 20 longer-legged C-17s. It is no surprise that the C-130s are struggling, but senior USAF officials note that even the new C-17s are starting to show the effects of fatigue.

“I wonder if we do have enough airlift,” Ladnier said. “Every day, we rack and stack requests and support them until we run out of aircraft.” Ladnier keeps a chart titled, “Regrets”—which, he explained, lists those he has told, “Sorry, can’t move you today; we are out of airlift.”

Few aircraft are worked harder than the ubiquitous C-130, which first flew as a prototype in 1954 and in the ensuing years has seen action in just about every war theater in the world. That history makes good stories. For example, a C-130 recently parked on the apron at a base in Kuwait is said to be the same one that took a mortar in one engine while hauling marines out of Khe Sanh in early 1968. After the airplane sustained more battle damage, the story goes, USAF replaced all four of its engines and both of its wings, and it is going strong today in the Gulf.

What keeps it all working is a stubbornly dedicated collection of air and ground crews that refuse to accept defeat in the face of unexpected breakdowns, enormous dust storms that fling rocks into engine intakes, or the blowtorch heat that bakes dirt onto compressor blades so hard it has to be chiseled off.

Take, for example, a recent C-130 midnight run from a Persian Gulf nation (it must remain unidentified) to Baghdad. The flight, tagged as Chrome 31, was to go from Baghdad on to Balad, al-Taqaddum, and al-Asad air bases, and then back to Baghdad and on to the trip’s origination point.

Just as the airlifter touched down in Baghdad with a belly crammed with combat-loaded troops, its No. 3 engine flamed out and went dead. That problem cropped up after the airlifter’s self-contained navigation system flight computer blew out, its radar malfunctioned, the navigator’s headset stopped working, and the air-conditioning failed. With onboard temperature spiking to 110 degrees, Chrome 31 bucked and heaved through gusty crosswinds on its final approach. One after another, the passengers became violently ill.

Out of Options

“Uh-oh, we have sympathetic puking,” one of the loadmasters reported to the flight deck.

“OK, I am about out of troubleshooting options,” declared Chrome 31’s exasperated flight engineer, 28-year-old SSgt. David Baker.

Chrome 31’s flamed-out engine seemed to be taken as a personal insult by engineer Baker, a bearish man who radiates a huge amount of nervous energy. On the ground, as the three good engines spun down, he bolted from his seat and soon had opened an engine hatch, through which he poked and prodded the engine under the glare of floodlights attracting swarms of flying insects.

“We have very little maintenance [support] here,” said a truck driver who came around to watch. In a demonstration of his meaning, he held his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. What with regular mortar and rocket attacks, he went on, “they don’t want to keep nothin’ on the runway too long, you know?”

Meantime, a long line of combat troops had formed up, preparing to board. Chrome 31 was to be their way out of Baghdad for two weeks of leave, and they were ready to go. They were so close, and yet … Baker cursed and fumed at the engine. Soon, someone passed the word that the flight would be delayed, and the disappointed travelers shuffled away to wait. Soon enough they were back. Baker slammed the hatch shut, the engines roared back to life, and Chrome 31 was back in business. What was the problem? Baker shrugged. “Don’t know,” he said.

Air and ground crews seem to take the problems in stride. Peering into a C-130 wheel well during a preflight check, SrA. Joshua Putrzenski was philosophical. “This wasn’t first on my list,” he said, “but it’s part of the deal.”

The heat, dust, monotony, and absence of friends and loved ones grate on the airmen. In addition, they are bemused at what they perceive as a gulf between the sense of mission that they feel and the apparent lack of American public support for the war effort. “Nobody wants to be here—it sucks,” said Capt. Jeffrey Downs.

The state of the airplanes themselves is worrisome. US troops are riding into combat in rickety airplanes first designed in the early 1950s. Part of the reason is the incessant demand. The Air Force has been on a war footing, without let up, for the past 17 years, and the pace of “normal” global operations has busted all previous calculations about the useful life of airframes and engines and other components.

The Air Force plans to spend $32 billion on airlifters and tankers over the next four years, but progress has been slowed in recent years by cost growth and delays in some critical aircraft programs, not to mention an overall lack of funds for critical modernization and upgrades.

All of these problems leave the airmen struggling with an increasingly aged fleet. Across the Air Force, the average age of airplanes is 24 years, up from eight years in the course of a single generation. Maintenance costs are skyrocketing, according to Air Force officials. Each year, the Air Force pays $10 billion to fix old airplanes it had planned to junk, but is forced to keep flying. That’s $10 billion it doesn’t have to buy new airplanes. And that leaves the C-130s, climbing past four decades of air turbulence and hard landings with heavy loads, as the critical link in the war.

Their gun-metal gray fuselages are dented and scarred. Over the years, airmen have added homey touches—an iPod wired into a headset, a cupboard strapped to the cockpit settee fashioned from three-quarter-inch plywood—but it seems like a losing battle. A1C John Kolakowski and SSgt. Jacob Pomerenke struggled recently to replace cockpit windows on a 39-year-old C-130 damaged in a sandstorm. They had to carefully remove screws that had been tightened when their fathers were children, but the screws quickly disintegrated into dust.

Zero Tolerance

Despite such challenges, the ground and air crews stationed at a handful of bases around Southwest Asia achieve astonishing mission effectiveness rates. A large reason is motivation: Every pound of cargo that goes by air doesn’t have to be carried by truck convoy, and that means fewer American troops are at risk of death and injury from roadside bombs planted in their paths.

And what the C-130s carry into Iraq is critical to the war effort. “Guys see what’s happening in there and they want to make mission,” said Lt. Col. Michael Zick, commander of the 746th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, which has deployed from its regular home at Dyess AFB, Tex. Knowing their work is critical puts high stress on ground and air crews. “We have zero tolerance for error,” explained Lt. Col. Pat Pollock, deputy commander of the 386th Airlift Group. “You’ve got to rise to the occasion.”

The work is a grind. All the airmen here are volunteers, mostly on a cycle that calls for a four-month rotation into the theater and four months at home station. That’s not four months of home rest, said Capt. Matt Anastas of Centreville, Va., a C-130 aircraft commander. Time at home station is crammed with training on skills not used here, such as formation flying and airdrops. In the past 30 months, Anastas has served in the Gulf Region for a total of 12 months, shuttling into Iraq with troops and supplies and bringing homeward-bound soldiers, and often wounded, out. Some trips are designated “HR flights.” The initials stand for “human remains,” referring to the bodies of Americans killed in action.

Aircrews carry weapons and wear body armor. Flying into Iraq, usually at night, they strip the American flag emblems and name tags from their flight suits in case they are shot down. They carry rescue packets. They constantly change flight patterns and altitudes to avoid ground fire and surface-to-air missiles. It is not uncommon for an airplane’s automatic flare dispenser to launch blinding flares when a missile threat is detected.

Approaching Baghdad or other air bases in Iraq, C-130s weave through thickets of air traffic including unmanned aerial vehicles piloted remotely from Nevada, attack and medevac choppers, and chartered Russian Il-76 cargo aircraft. Pilots wearing night vision goggles peer through their windscreens at the tilting landscape outside, and the danger of midair collision is ever-present, said Zick. Most modern aircraft have automatic collision avoidance systems. Today’s C-130s do not.

“A lot of people are operating in a tight space, and it’s ‘see and avoid,'” Zick said.

With the crew members anxiously scanning the sky for aircraft and the ground in search of missile launches or small-arms fire, C-130 pilots plummet toward the runway in a twisting corkscrew dive that leaves the troops crushed into their red canvas sling seats one second and seeming to float above them the next.

Delivering them promptly and safely requires the constant attention of air crew members and people on the ground—such as crew chief James, who was up on that ladder, poking his finger into that troubling gap between the stabilizer and the elevator. The metal was burning hot. An hour passed. Finally, James pronounced himself satisfied that the flight could proceed. “It’s not a showstopper,” he explained. “It’s a ‘maintenance inconvenience.'”

Replied SrA. Carlos Alcantar, an avionics technician, “Stuff goes bad, we pull it and replace the part, send it away to get fixed. The part comes back, we put it back in, and it goes bad again. So it goes.”

David Wood, national security correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, recently completed his fifth reporting trip since 9/11 to the US Central Command area of responsibility. This is his first article for Air Force Magazine.