By Tech Sgt. Jason Ketterer, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published November 15, 2012
KENTUCKY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- For more than two decades, the 123rd Airlift Wing has been sending enlisted crew members to the sky in the C-130 Hercules. Their airborne office hurtles these flight engineers and loadmasters across the globe to perform their mission year 'round, whether it be supporting hurricane relief operations at home or fighting the global war on terror abroad.
It's a rare opportunity most enlisted Airmen will never know: They get to fly in airplanes.
"If you ask the average person on the street, 'Who flies airplanes?' naturally they're going to say pilots," said Lt. Col. Shawn Dawley, commander of the Kentucky Air National Guard's 165th Airlift Squadron. "And in some aircraft, that's absolutely accurate. It's only a pilot.
"But with the C-130, due to the complexities of the systems, the complexities of the mission, the types of tasks we're asked to accomplish, we have to organize ourselves around a crew concept to divvy up responsibilities amongst crew members to manage the whole task."
And now, thanks to a restructuring of the force, the 165th Airlift Squadron is looking to recruit potential Airmen who want to be part of that collective crew by serving as loadmasters and flight engineers.
During sorties as an enlisted member in the tactical airlift world, a flight engineer is responsible for monitoring fuel systems, electrical systems, hydraulics and pneumatics. Sitting between three officers on the flight deck, the engineer also preflights the C-130 and computes take-off and landing data.
A loadmaster's realm is at the bulkhead and the rear of the aircraft. Physically separated from the rest of the crew, a loadmaster calculates the metrics of cargo to verify that the weight and subsequent balance within the fuselage are safe for transport.
"The constant variation of loads requires us to be prepared for all types of cargo to be moved with our aircraft," said Airman 1st Class Erick Anderson, a loadmaster with the 165th.
"Loadmasters are required to be fluent in and resourceful with our publications so that we're quick to identify conflicts with cargo and plane limitations. We're responsible for everything from transporting passengers to dropping a parachutist out of a plane at 10,000 feet, hauling vehicles to isolated areas or airdropping ammo, water, medical supplies and equipment to our troops in battle."
A loadmaster has "awesome responsibilities to the aircraft and crew," according to Chief Master Sgt. Jeff Brown, Loadmaster Section chief, and there is no room for unsafe execution.
"We need Airmen who know how to be safe, want to be safe, that are willing to fly into unsafe conditions in order to do what needs to be done," Brown said. "When you're in the AOR, in Afghanistan in particular, you're in a dangerous area from take off to landing."
"Integrity First" -- one of the Air Force Core Values -- is paramount in tactical airlift, officials said.
"The actions of one directly affect the lives of the other men and women on board," said Senior Master Sgt. Scott Davis, acting supervisor of the Flight Engineer Section.
The ability to work well in teams while being self-sufficient is another key attribute for enlisted crew members.
"Confidence in yourself and your training will play a part in determining any Airman's success as an aviator, but you also have to play well with others," Davis said. "You report to the aircrew commander, but you have to operate independently. A lot of times you have to be the systems expert. So we're looking for someone who can not only work well with others, but who is also self-motivated to keep up on their own training."
That training will take enlisted crew members to the farthest corners of America.
"My training for the military consisted of attending technical schools located throughout the continental United States," recalls Tech. Sgt. Matthew McKeehan, a flight engineer in the 165th Airlift Squadron. "My first school was in San Antonio, Texas, at Lackland Air Force Base for basic engineer training. Next was survival training, which took me to Pensacola, Fla., and Spokane, Wash. After these training assignments were completed, I traveled to Little Rock, Ark., for specific training on the C-130. All in all, it took me away from home for a solid year.
"While this was the most challenging training I've ever accomplished, the hard work and time sacrificed away from friends and family has been well worth it," he noted.
According to Dawley, the skills that will make or break an aircrew member's career are not easily displayed on a resume. Nor can they necessarily be measured by scores from aptitude tests like the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery or the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test.
Individuals must possess a thick skin to be able to recover from mistakes, learn from them and not let it affect the mission at hand, he said. Also, Airmen must possess an "intrapersonal versatility" to be able to contribute in a professional manner with whomever they are assigned to work with in a crew.
"Long hours and 120-day deployments can be taxing in any work environment, but the personality that you bring to work needs to be mission-oriented and focused," he said.
"Lastly, to say that it takes courage to perform all of these tasks is an understatement by far. A flight engineer or a loadmaster has to be willing to strap themselves into a 155,000 pound piece of metal, load it with jet fuel and deliberately fly it into the teeth of the adversary, yet possess maturity, wisdom and judgment to not be reckless adrenaline junkies."
For Brown, being a loadmaster has been a tremendously rewarding career.
"Watching heavy equipment leave the airplane during an airdrop has always been an exhilarating experience for me," he said. "You're traveling along at approximately 150 mph, the (rear) ramp door opens, the parachute goes out behind the airplane, opens up and pulls that load out. It's almost like that load is sitting still and the airplane pulls away from it at 150 miles an hour. That's about how fast the cargo leaves the airplane."
Brown also gets a lot of satisfaction from aeromedical evacuation missions and emergency airdrops.
"A lot of times, especially in the AOR, we'll go in to pick up (soldiers) or Marines who have been severely injured. You have to get that guy out and fly him to a medical facility quickly. We'll also do emergency airdrops, where we go into a combat area to drop ammunition to troops who are in contact with the enemy right there, and they are almost out of ammunition and have to have it right away. Those are always fulfilling missions because you know how important your work is to those wounded soldiers or the troops on the ground."