Back in the fight: C-17 resumes airdrops in AOR
By Tech. Sgt. Ted Nichols, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing
/ Published May 15, 2018
AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar -- The C-17 Globemaster III aircraft is a battle-proven airlifter that has served as the lifeblood for nearly all bases in Southwest Asia and it’s no different during Operation Freedom Sentinel in Afghanistan.
Conducting airdrops is one of the capabilities the C-17 was built for. However, the Globemaster has not been called on for this skillset in the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility for nearly a year and a half.
That all changed when an Al Udeid-based C-17 completed the first combat-airdrop mission in 18 months over Southern Afghanistan, May 10-11.
Preparing for the task at hand
A remote base awaits their lifeline as skilled loadmasters push more than a dozen pallets of general cargo bound for Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.
The C-17 crew has a grueling 15-hour day ahead that will take them from the deserts of Qatar over the austere mountainous terrain of the Afghan countryside.
“Our tasking and the aircraft selection for this mission really comes down to the C-17’s larger cargo capacity,” said Maj. Nicholas Coblio, mission aircraft commander from the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron. “The C-17 can complete this mission with one aircraft in one pass, minimizing risk and maximizing productivity.”
The 816th EAS, part the 385th Air Expeditionary Group and a tenant unit at Al Udeid, is responsible for undertaking this complex mission that represents a lifeline to those troops needing basic supplies on the ground.
Hitting the halfway point
After a busy flight with the aircrew working diligently to make preparations for the airdrop ahead, the C-17 touches down at Bagram for the next phase of the mission.
The terrain has vastly changed and the crew’s mission-oriented focus becomes fine-tuned as the mission-clock ticks.
The loadmasters begin to load pallets for the upcoming airdrop after unloading the inbound cargo. Turning the mission into a joint affair, forward-deployed U.S. Army soldiers from the 824th Quartermaster Detachment, based out of Al Udeid, assembled the pallets at Bagram and complete the final rigging for the drop.
“This airdrop represents a very significant mission — delivering needed supplies while reducing the burden and risk on our Army helicopter and maintenance crews,” said Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 David Beville, 3rd Infantry Division Resolute Support Sustainment Brigade that maintains tasking authority for the 824th. “This is our sole job. Regardless of what we are dropping, our job is to throw stuff out of planes to people that need it.”
The soldiers’ pride in their work, which entailed 30 hours of preparation and assembly time, is apparent as the cargo sits loaded on the plane ready to head for its destination. A sense of fulfillment is readily apparent on their faces as they depart the aircraft.
“It is rewarding to see the culmination of all your work,” said Army Staff Sgt. Barry MacDonald, Bagram non-commissioned officer-in-charge for the 824th. “It’s easy to get into the monotony of rigging, but seeing it get loaded on an aircraft and seeing it go down range and knowing that troops are going to receive their needed supplies makes all of the long hours worthwhile.”
Hitting the target
Following a smooth takeoff, the mission-clock begins to tick ever closer to their time over target where the drop will occur.
The job of the loadmasters aboard the aircraft, whose work has been nonstop throughout the flight, begins to take center stage.
“The job of the loadmaster is to supervise the loading and unloading of the aircraft as well as making sure the aircraft is within balance,” said Staff Sgt. Ryan Gewinner, loadmaster and joint airdrop inspector for the mission. “During the drop, as we approach the target, our job then shifts to making sure everything exits the aircraft successfully.”
As the cargo door opens and the ramp lowers, a controller on the ground radios to the crew “clear to drop.”
In the blink of an eye, the pallets seamlessly flow into motion and in mere seconds the once-packed cargo compartment is empty. One by one the massive bundles are consumed by darkness with the last fleeting glimpse being the tops of parachutes before the ramp goes up and the door closes.
Into the homestretch
The C-17 again takes to the skies after a post-drop refueling stop. The cargo compartment is empty for the first full leg of the day. The loadmasters at the back of the aircraft can finally take a break and reflect on the undertaking.
“It’s always fulfilling to head back to base knowing you accomplished what you set out to do,” said Gewinner. “I’m proud to be part of a team that regardless of what is asked of them gets the mission done safely and skillfully.”
As the crew disembarks the aircraft and heads for post-mission debriefings and much-needed rest, their spirits are full.
“There is nothing more fulfilling professionally than doing what you’re trained to do and doing it in a combat environment where your work has a real, instantaneous impact,” said Coblio. “This whole mission was the result of a hardworking team all doing the job they have trained for. From the support of our squadron to our maintainers on the ground to our loadmasters and the rigging team in Bagram, this mission wouldn’t have been successful if it weren’t for each one of them.”