Planes break, plans change, people make things happen

By Gene Kamena, Professor
Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark.

Mr. Kamena, retired Army colonel, is a professor at Air War College where he teaches leadership. In this post, he discusses the great leadership he witnessed on his way to a conference.

The Air Force has its traditions; I guess a 4 a.m. show time for a 6:30 a.m. takeoff is one of them … at least that was the plan.

The propellers were already turning on the C-130J Super Hercules as we walked out of the hangar towards the plane. The familiar smell of jet fuel sent me back to distant places and other times. I had been here before, but never as a civilian and never wearing blue jeans. I was preparing to travel to the Air Education and Training Command symposium in San Antonio.

Chalk two — my chalk — began loading at 6:30 a.m. The plane started rolling at 7 a.m., but 30 minutes on the ramp seemed unusually long. I knew something was awry. When the C-130J finally came to a stop, my suspicions were confirmed.

The plane was “hard broke,” and I knew this could turn into a long day. However, the NCOs took control, and within minutes, had the passengers divided up and placed on other planes. The plan was that my aircraft would have a two-hour layover at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., to pick-up other passengers before flying to San Antonio.

Thankfully, the flight to Eglin AFB was uneventful, except for one thing — the plane’s loadmaster. Having served more than thirty years in the Army had trained my eyes to watch people, particularly NCOs while they went about their duties. I always learned something when watching a good NCO. This loadmaster was one of them. He went about his tasks with a determined purpose. He checked everything, he ensured other crew members completed their responsibilities, and he kept a watchful eye on all the passengers.

The plane landed with a jolt. We were no longer airborne, but the loadmaster was still diligent in his duties. He directed us off the back ramp while the plane took on fuel, led us a safe distance away and kept all the passengers together. After all, herding a group of colonels and civilians is no easy task.

The remainder of our time at Eglin AFB was spent off the tail of the C-130J, watching the plane refuel and waiting for additional passengers to show. The time passed quickly as I conversed with the loadmaster — a great young American.
Staff Sgt. Dave Sanders was enthusiastic about his job, his Air Force and his unit — the 62nd Airlift Squadron from Little Rock AFB, Ark. He took pride in his plane, and it showed. It was also obvious he knew his job, and did it well.

Sergeant Sanders has been in the Air Force for 10 years and wants to continue serving as a C-130 loadmaster; in fact, that is all he wants to do. He is articulate, motivated and professional. Our chance encounter left this retired Army colonel with a sense of satisfaction; the aircraft and the people under the charge of Sergeant Sanders will continue to be in good hands.

A couple leadership points are worth considering, especially for those of us who stay behind a desk or in classrooms a large portion of our day:

— There are great people in the Air Force; you just have to get out and meet them. Take time to speak to enlisted members; ask them their stories. You will be amazed at their professionalism and patriotism.

— The best thing a leader can do, when leading people like Sergeant Sanders, is provide them with what they need to do their jobs … and then stay out of their way.

— Airplanes break and plans change, but people of Sergeant Sanders’s caliber overcome and make things happen.

My first AETC symposium was a good experience. The lectures and speeches were excellent, but I think what I heard and saw at the conference will soon fade. My conversation with an Air Force loadmaster has made a lasting impression.

PHOTO:  The 48th Airlift Squadron trains C-130J pilots and loadmasters for the United States Air Force. Adept, responsive and reliable are words that help describe the 48th’s mission, and their Airmen are ready to hop to it. (U.S. Air Force photo by Steele C. G. Britton)