Hours before propellers turn and wheels leave the ground, one group of Airmen are the first pair of boots to step forward in the mission.
From securing cargo to ensuring passenger safety and comfort, 86th Airlift Wing C-130J Super Hercules loadmasters from the 37th Airlift Squadron are largely responsible for mission success.
Lives are in the hands of these select few, who work around the clock and globe to deliver air support whenever and wherever it may be needed.
Although many don’t experience an issue, Senior Airman Emily Mitchell, 37th AS loadmaster, experienced the value of readiness firsthand when a jumpmaster got caught on a static line when exiting the aircraft.
“I couldn’t believe it when it was happening,” Mitchell said. “It was scary. His life was in my hands and that’s not something people go through every day. I was extremely relieved when I pulled him in and even more so when I had been told he had made a full recovery. It’s an experience I will never forget.”
C-130J pilots work primarily in the front and keep the aircraft safe and operational, whereas loadmasters are responsible for the rest. According to Capt. Brian Shea, 37th AS pilot, it is hard to put into words how much a pilot relies on a loadmaster and their ability to solve problems.
“Our job on C-130s is to ensure cargo and personnel movement into a combat environment,” Shea said. “Trust is critical between loadmasters and pilots because we rely on them to fly safely. They do all of the work in the back of the airplane and we need their expertise.”
Properly functioning aircraft not only ensure that things get where they need to go, but the aircraft play a key role in the bigger picture as well. These C-130J experts have a heavy hand in the U.S. Air Force’s forward presence in Europe, allowing work with allies to develop and improve the ready air force’s capabilities of maintaining regional security.
“I’ve known since I decided to come into the Air Force that this job was the one I wanted,” said Senior Airman Tristen Geray, 37th AS loadmaster. “The part of it you don’t see is that 15-hour day when we land in (a foreign country) in the early hours of the morning. It’s still dark out and we have to hand-download more than 10,000 pounds of (cargo) because no one is out there. Although I’ve slept in many hotels, I’ve also slept on a lot of cots and done my fair share of sweating. I’ve never once regretted it and that’s how I know I’m in the right job for me.”
After almost a year of technical training in their field, C-130J loadmasters are qualified for both basic loading and cargo and personnel airdrop operations. This training equips them with the skills to balance the weight of each load on the plane, which can affect the performance of the aircraft.
Cargo drops are a common occurrence in their world, Geray said, but there is one line of work to which most loadmasters can never get completely comfortable with.
Personnel airdrops are a large part of delivering air support throughout Europe and Africa and go smoothly for most throughout their careers, but loadmasters must train to save lives in case of a mishap in the air.
Accidents don’t happen often, but the 37th AS stays mission-ready, 24/7 for whatever comes their way.
The hardships of meeting the mission do have their payoffs, Geray said.
“It’s been my dream to travel the world, and it is eye-opening to see other ways of life,” Geray said. “You learn to appreciate a lot of what you have and realize that there are many ways of doing things, living and being on this planet. This job lets me do that.”