***image1***Six takeoffs. Six landings. Twelve hours.
All in a day’s work for aircrew members of the 737th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron taking on the mission known as the “pain train.”
“It’s called the pain train because there’s just 30 minutes between each stop,” said Capt. Robin Cadow, 737 EAS pilot. “At each stop the motors are kept running as we offload cargo and passengers and then reconfigure the back of the aircraft and upload our next load of cargo and passengers.”
With the C-130 Hercules, a tactical airlift platform able to perform many different missions, the 737th moved more than 40,000 passengers and hauled more than 500 tons of cargo in and out of Iraq in September. The squadron, along with the 43rd Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron, flew almost 1,500 sorties and more than 2,400 hours in the same month.
“The C-130 is a very versatile aircraft, able to carry all types of cargo from Soldiers and Marines to Stryker armored vehicles,” Captain Cadow said. “Plus, being a propeller driven aircraft, it doesn’t require as much runway as the bigger aircraft do.”
Making sure the people and cargo arrive on time isn’t the aircrew’s only challenge. Flying C-130s over Iraq is dangerous. In a speech at the 2007 Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium, Gen. Duncan McNabb, then the Air Mobility Command commander, said next to helicopters, airlift airplanes are the most shot at of all the assets we have.
“The reason is when they come in, they’re a little bit slower, they’re fairly predictable,” he said.
Most of the time it was small arms fire, but AMC aircraft were shot at 215 times in 2006, he added.
“We must always wear our helmets and body armor while in the combat environment,” said Captain Cadow. “There wouldn’t be time to get ready if we were attacked. Everyone is either busy moving cargo or people in and out of the aircraft or staring out the windows looking for threats while airborne.”
Making sure the crew avoids “hot areas” and making adjustments to the flight path is the job of the C-130’s navigator.
“There’s not a lot of time in between stops to sit back and reflect on mistakes or good points; it’s pretty fast paced,” said Capt. William Roelker, 737th EAS navigator. “There’s a lot of work that must be done in order to have a successful mission.”
During their preflight planning process, the aircrew determines the routes into and out of the bases, weather conditions, load sizes and weights, cleared flight paths and the locations of any possible danger spots, Captain Roelker added.
Because the average age of the C-130s here is 41 years old, constant attention is required. Up front, flight engineers are responsible for monitoring all the systems on the aircraft, such as engines, hydraulics, power systems and radios. They also work with the pilots and recommend procedures to correct any malfunctions that may come up during the flight.
“It’s an awesome job,” said Master Sgt. William Zegley, 737th EAS flight engineer superintendent. “When situations arise, we’ve only got minutes, sometimes seconds, to come up with a solution to continue the mission.”
Mission success ultimately depends on making sure people, along with their cargo, make it where they need to be. That’s where loadmasters come in.
“My teammates and I handle all the cargo in the business end of the aircraft,” said Master Sgt. David Morse, 737th EAS loadmaster. “We can carry anything from vehicles, forklifts, people and sometimes distinguished visitors; if we can safely fit it in here, we can carry it.”
The loadmasters are also tasked with ensuring cargo safety, whether it’s pallets of equipment or servicemembers coming in or out of the area of responsibility.
“When it’s on the plane it’s ours,” Sergeant Morse said. “But we’re not just worried about cargo, we have to look out the back windows of the aircraft and scan the ground looking for any threats which may come from behind or below.”
While the individual aircrew members all have different tasks and responsibilities, it takes a team effort for aircrews to accomplish this vital mission.
“Without everyone working in unison, we’d fail,” said Captain Cadow. “And we won’t do that.”