Photo: A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft from the 437th Airlift Wing, Joint Base Charleston, S.C., departs Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan on Dec. 4, 2011. The C-17 can carry large equipment, supplies and troops directly to small airfields in harsh conditions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht)
By Staff Sgt. David Salanitri
U.S. Air Forces Central
Their flight suits are soaked through with sweat, it’s 110 degrees outside and the smell in the U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III resembles a high school locker room — we’re 30 minutes into our 15-hour mission.
Like the majority of people who like to browse news on the war, I’ve seen many pictures and videos of supplies and cargo being dropped from an aircraft … the pallets of supplies float gracefully down and that is that. Never do I see the blood, sweat and tears that go behind getting those pallets to where they need to be.
The crew is alerted around 9 a.m. and arrives to the squadron 40 minutes later. They assemble for a highly detailed pre-mission brief that prepares the Airmen for what they will face during their mission.
Once processed through customs, it’s time to arm up and head to the plane. Today is my first combat airdrop mission; our location is somewhere in Southwest Asia. The air is heavy with humidity — you can actually feel the air on your skin. At this point, all we’ve done is place our bags on the C-17 and already our flight suits are drenched in sweat. Drops of perspiration are falling off the loadmaster’s face. We have 13 hours left in the day.
Even in the cargo bay of the massive aircraft, room is at a premium. More than 73,000 pounds of JP-8 fuel loaded on 40 pallets fill the aircraft from tail to nose, leaving just enough space for us to walk along the sides. The loadmaster’s voice comes over the speakers “ready for takeoff.” Within seconds our warehouse with wings is in the air.
Estimated time over target is two hours. The lights dim and things begin to cool off as we ascend.
As we get closer to the drop zone, Staff Sgt. Russ Johnson, an 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron loadmaster, signals a 30-minute warning. My two partners are no strangers to documenting airdrops, but for me, this is a new experience.
I strap myself into a seat in the back by the door. The aircraft dives, dips and dodges its way through the mountains of Afghanistan — I eye up the closest pile of puke-bags in case things go south for this guy.
The door opens at about 1,000 feet above the ground. I knew Afghanistan was mountainous, but I couldn’t have been prepared for what I saw. The mountains are high and the aircraft is low. It feels as though I could reach out and touch the mountaintops — I wasn’t too far off.
It’s game time. Red light … yellow light … green light. Within two seconds, 36,500 pounds of JP-8 fuel violently races past me and out the aircraft, floating down to coalition troops on the ground. Our second pass drops another load.
Gearing up for our third drop, a stop is made at Bagram Airfield (BAF) to refuel and load up another 48,000 pounds of Meals, Ready to Eat. As we’re parked on the ramp, the doors open and the tail goes down. For anyone who hasn’t been to BAF, it’s a sight to see. A bowl of mountains surround the airfield. On the ramp of the aircraft lay two loadmasters enjoying the sunset on what appears to be a peaceful evening.
With one pallet left to load on the plane, sirens go off. The peaceful moment disappears as the crew loading the plane runs for cover because, make no mistake about it, we are at war.
The news team and aircrew shelter in place on the aircraft. The sirens disappear and a new noise is heard. A pair of fighter jets and helicopters take to the sky. We all agree, someone is about to have a bad day.
More than an hour passes before the last pallet is finally loaded.
The sun is down and the sky is dark. Red lights illuminate the cargo area of the plane.
In preparation for the last drop of the mission, the lights dim. Looking through the viewfinder of my camera is a daunting task as visibility is close to nonexistent. We’re effectively an invisible flying Wal-Mart under the night sky. In a matter of 10 seconds, the doors open, the MREs blast out the door and we are on our way home.
Fifteen hours for about 15 seconds of actual action. Action that will keep my brothers and sisters fed, and their vehicles working.
The men and women of the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron from Joint Base Charleston are game changers. They allow coalition forces to sustain operations in some of the most austere locations on Earth. They are force multipliers.
Video: Airlift supports warfighter
Photo: (Top) Air Force Staff Sgt. Stephen Adams, an 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron loadmaster, observes 36,500 pounds of JP-8 fuel fly out the back of a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft over Afghanistan July 8, 2011. The C-17 dropped more than 121,000 pounds of food and fuel during a 15-hour mission. Supplies were dropped to U.S. and coalition troops. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. David Salanitri) (Bottom) Staff Sgt. Adams releases 48,000 pounds of Meals, Ready to Eat out of the C-17 on July 8, 2011 over Afghanistan during the concealment of the night sky. The crews also airdropped more than 73,000 pounds of JP-8 fuel during their mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. David Salanitri)
Below are some photos from our Airmen who have deployed to assist in the humanitarian effort in Haiti. This is just a small sampling. Be sure to check out the Air Force Flickr page for more photos and many more to come. Want even more photos? Visit Defense Imagery.
- U.S.Air Force personnel from the 621st Contingency Response Wing, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., off load cargo from a Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., C-17 Globemaster III, Jan. 15, 2010, at the Port-au-Princce airport in support relief efforts to Haiti in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua L. DeMotts) (Released)
- An aerial view of the damaged Presidential Palace in Haiti from a U.S. Air Force Global Hawk unmanned aircraft Jan. 14. Aerial images are providing U.S. military planners valuable situation awareness as they coordinate U.S. military support to the Haiti relief effort. (Release by U.S. Southern Command)
For the first time ever, 12 nations have come together, independently of NATO, to fly in support of their national requirements for Strategic Airlift Capability. “While we don’t take operational directions from [NATO], our nations are free to use their flying hours to support NATO missions,” U.S. Air Force Col. John D. Zazworski, Jr., commander of the Heavy Airlift Wing, Papa, Hungary, told bloggers during a Department of Defense Bloggers Roundtable teleconference July 29. You can hear the audio from the teleconference here.
During the official activation ceremony of a first-of-its-kind multinational Heavy Airlift Wing at Papa Air Base, Hungary, July 27, U.S. Air Force Col. John Zazworsky gives thanks to the 12-nation team who, during the last 10 months, stood up the organization that will provide strategic airlift worldwide for humanitarian, disaster relief, and peacekeeping missions in support of the European Union, United Nations and NATO. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Scott Wagers)
Below is a dispatch, originally posted on USAFE Live, by Col. John Zazworsky (below right), Commander, Heavy Airlift Wing, Pápa Air Base, Hungary. Col. Zazworsky discusses the importance of the new multinational Heavy Airlift Wing, a collaboration between 12 nations to provide strategic airlift capability.
Team, Mission and Future – that’s what I tell the members of my wing, the first-of-its-kind Heavy Airlift Wing, based at Pápa Air Base, Hungary. I challenge all 131 of them – from 12 different nations — to guide their work using these three priorities. We’ve built a multinational team; we’re focused on executing C-17 missions and we’re literally making history as we shape the future.
The concept is simple, and yet profound: a partnership effort to make possible for 12 nations what any one of them could not do alone.
The Heavy Airlift Wing is the operational-level flying unit brought to life by the unprecedented Strategic Airlift Capability, or SAC, Program. After two years of discussions, 12 nations officially signed onto the program just over 10 months ago, creating a consortium of both NATO and non-NATO nations with a common goal.
All 12 nations have a need for strategic airlift – the ability to transport troops, mechanized firepower and oversized equipment weighing tens of tons between continents. Yet all faced daunting dollar signs in acquiring an airframe capable of doing so.
While some of the SAC nations own tactical airlifters – smaller cargo aircraft that hold less and fly shorter distances, like the C-130, none but the US own strategic airlift aircraft. And yet each nation has commitments to fulfill for NATO, the European Union and the United Nations. For instance, all have obligations to equip and resupply their troops currently supporting NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
The solution: collectively organize, train and equip a multinational unit to jointly own and operate three C-17s with global reach and power.
The first of our fleet is now in hand, already hard at work. I had the honor of receiving SAC 01 from the master builders at Boeing Tuesday and took off from Long Beach, Calif., for Charleston AFB, S.C., to load up forklifts, cargo loading vehicles and other heavy equipment. These items will allow us to carry out logistics functions at Pápa.
I was just awed to watch my team in action these past couple days: a talented and energized crew of pilots, loadmasters and flying crew chiefs from Norway, Sweden and the U.S. making our mission a reality… not to mention the others back home ensuring all goes smoothly. The nations have sent their best for sure.
We take off today to complete the second leg of our 5,300-nautical-mile maiden flight to Pápa AB, the place we now call home. Amid a vibrant and welcoming small town of 33,000 natives, our airmen and their families have built a military community of Bulgarians, Dutch, Estonians, Finns, Lithuanians, Norwegians, Poles, Romanians, Slovenians, Swedes and Americans… and of course our hosts, the Hungarians.
So many from every nation have worked tirelessly to build from scratch what’s essentially a multinational air force – without any real template of any kind — on soil that is foreign to all nations but one. It’s literally been a pioneering effort. And with SAC 01 under our command, we’re now ready to officially activate the wing.
On July 27, civilian and military leaders from all of the SAC nations and NATO will join us at Pápa to officially activate the Heavy Airlift Wing and to celebrate the capability we are and will be for decades to come.
As someone who’s worn Air Force blue for 26 years, I’m humbled to have this incomparable command opportunity, to see military partnerships and friendships transcend history, borders, languages and cultures… and to play a role in the future of multinational airlift.
It’s time for take-off.
Col. John Zazworsky
Heavy Airlift Wing
Pápa Air Base, Hungary