BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan --
Earlier this month, a bomb was used to take out a high-stakes member of the Islamic State in Afghanistan—a big win for troops, especially those who moved the explosives through each step, eventually making it onto the F-16 Fighting Falcon that dropped it on target.
A bomb makes its way through hundreds of hands until it’s ready and fully functional. With each step as critical as the next, those working with explosives say it’s a hazardous yet gratifying experience.
On the receiving end
Explosives coming in and out of Bagram Airfield on aircraft are handled by the 455th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron aerial port operations.
Using forklifts, they start pushing pallets filled with hundreds to thousands of pounds of explosives.
“When you are dealing with explosives, the general rule is have the least amount of people in the vicinity as possible,” said retired Master Sgt. Calvin Spellman, 455th ELRS aerial port operations and services senior duty officer. “We [move the munitions] in the most safe manner as possible because one misstep can make it a very long and arduous process.”
Spellman noted his team is certified in explosive handling, which must be renewed annually, along with learning how to safely operate a forklift around munitions. Working together to get the warheads to the fighters, Spellman said each teammate has to do their part to make the process go smoothly.
The aerial port operations team includes several contractors, with a vast majority of them being prior military members.
“This just gives them another way to serve their country and help out those still on active duty,” Spellman said. “It’s a lot easier for contractors to be out here doing the job so our Airmen, Sailors, Marines and Soldiers can concentrate on their mission when they get here.”
Once the munitions are downloaded, they move on to the next step in the process.
Piecing it together
While in the hands of the 455th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron munitions flight, the bombs are accounted for, stored and handled in a serviceable manner. When bombs are required to fill a requirement, AMMO troops inspect and assemble them in an assembly-line fashion, ensuring each step in the process is followed with technical accuracy for safety purposes.
“There’s a lot more risk and safety precautions that we have to follow and abide by here in a combat zone compared to our home station training environment; this is real world hands-on live explosives,” said Master Sgt. Chet Reed, 455th EMXS munitions production superintendent. “It’s a very good opportunity for AMMO troops to come here and do the real thing because the magnitude of our job and how it impacts the mission, the country of Afghanistan, is enormous.”
The responsibility of a 500-pound bomb may be in the hands of a teenage Airman who recently finished training. However, in the AMMO family, the respect and trust of one another is apparent among troops, with their internal camaraderie carrying over off duty.
“It’s a tight-knit community and has been at almost every installation I’ve been to,” Reed said. “I think one of the reasons why is because we are generally [separated] from the main part of the installation due to explosive safety concerns with the undertaking of storing explosives. That [separation] drives a lot of the camaraderie and closeness we have with each other.”
Among the isolation, Reed noted the Airmen put their lives into each other’s hands on a daily basis while working directly with explosives.
Building bombs is not their only responsibility; there are many AMMO shops which all work toward one goal.
In technical training school, Airmen in this career field just scratch the surface learning the basics of their jobs in eight weeks: inspection, storage, control, conventional maintenance, equipment maintenance, line delivery and missile productions.
“Everyone has to buy into the process, otherwise they become the squeaky cog in the wheel,” Reed said. “Whether it’s tedious or not, if it’s just taking care of trailers, which may seem irrelevant—it’s an important piece of the puzzle when you consider what’s going to be loaded on those trailers and what needs to get to the aircraft.”
Each section working in unison decreases the potential for human error, Reed added, directly impacting the mission and affecting the lives of everyone in the fight.
In just two months, Bagram’s perfectly oiled engine known as the ‘fAMMOly’ has successfully built 301 munition systems that have been dropped on our enemies.
“It’s a sense of accomplishment in this environment; specifically, because you know that once the bomb is assembled, loaded onto the trailers and delivered to the aircraft, it’s highly likely not to be seen again,” Reed said. “There’s some self-gratification knowing that what you’re doing is directly impacting the mission and is affecting lives to include the lives of Afghans too because we are helping to take out ISIS and the Taliban.”
After the AMMO teams deliver the bombs needed for the fighter jets, their counterparts, the weapons load crew, places the bombs onto the aircraft for use.
Crew members load bombs, missiles, rockets, countermeasures such as chaff and flare, and ammunition that goes into the gun system.
“Not a lot of people get to load bombs for a living,” said Master Sgt. Brian Storme, 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron F-16 weapons maintenance element non-commissioned officer-in-charge. “We have a saying, ‘without weapons it’s just another airline.’ It’s the whole purpose of a fighter pilot’s mission when they go out to have that fire power and that ability to drop munitions, and we are providing that service to them.”
Weapons loaders have to wear dual hats dealing with not only the munitions, but also the weapons systems on the aircraft to ensure the bombs drop properly.
When it comes to loading the bomb, each load crew has individuals who take charge of separate responsibilities: a team chief, a lift truck or jammer driver and a tools and aircraft preparations troop.
“It’s important they are focused and not overwhelmed,” Storme said. “Giving each member their own area of expertise and responsibility within the crew helps keep that focus. When you’re dealing with safety risks of this magnitude you want to know that they aren’t taking on too much at one time.”
Throughout the loading process, each member inspects the area, the aircraft and the munitions as a safety precaution. To keep caution at the forefront of their minds, the team chief follows a checklist to guarantee each member is doing their part.
“The team chief keeps the whole operation under control, and each member is certified in the area they are responsible for,” Storme said. “We trust our Airmen; we train them and put them in charge of maintaining multi-million dollar aircraft, as well as loading thousands of pounds of explosives in any given operation. There’s a lot of trust there.”
With four months of training under their belt from tech school, dealing with explosives means constant training operations and exercises.
Each weapons loader has to maintain their certification on each weapon every month and is critiqued on their performance. If a crew member becomes decertified, they will be unable to load that weapon for a combat mission.
“If they don’t maintain those certifications, they can’t do their job,” Storme said. “Our troops have tremendous pride in their career field, though. They love being weapons troops and they work incredibly hard to wear that pride.”
Airmen within the weapons career field look forward to putting their training to good use during deployments, said Storme.
“It’s great seeing my team grow and develop as loaders here and seeing them apply their training in the real-world situations,” he said. “Watching an aircraft that you loaded with live-ammunition come back empty is the best form of job satisfaction that you could possibly get.”
Along the route to dropping warheads on targets, each section works together to streamline the process while focusing on safety.
Instead of making one career field responsible for the overall process, individuals in each section are able to specialize in their craft, decreasing the risk of human error.
Every pair of hands guiding the bomb along the way makes a difference every single day for all those serving in any capacity at Bagram and beyond.