BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan: Earlier this month in Afghanistan, a small unit of coalition ground forces
traveled a great distance to support an operation aimed squarely at the
Taliban and exhausted their food and water. While, navigating through a
deep gorge in a mountainous river valley, the situation was quickly
deteriorating. Now the supporters needed support.
“A major part of the wing’s mission is to supply the fight,” said Col. Jack Briggs II, the commander of the 455th AEW. “And the wing’s airlift squadron, the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, performed that mission in an outstanding manner by flying a C-130 (Hercules) aircraft into a hostile environment to supply ground forces that were essentially trapped in a river valley.”
Rugged mountain sides rising up from the valley created a narrow ‘V’ and supplying the ground forces with food and water meant flying a C-130 through this narrow path.
Hostile forces positioned in the rocks taking aim at the aircraft made the path even more dangerous.
“After we received this mission and started planning for it, we knew it would be a special flight,” said Maj. Eric Dolan, the navigator of the C-130. “We did a pre-mission analysis to see if we split that ‘V’ and dropped in the valley, would we then have enough power to climb out.”
Joining Major Dolan on this emergency airlift mission to resupply the depleted ground
unit: the pilot, Capt. P.J. LaBarbera; the co-pilot, Capt. Lance
Hollaway; the Joint Precision Airdrop System operator, 1st Lt A.J.
Standeford; the engineer, Senior Master Sgt. Cyrus Snider; and two
loadmasters, Tech. Sgt. Matt Ericson and Staff Sgt. Brad Emmett.
The entire crew is from the Air National Guard’s 182nd Airlift Wing in Peoria, Illinois. Though they train as realistically as possible in Illinois, this mission confirmed that some circumstances and surroundings just can’t be simulated.
“The mountains in Illinois aren’t as high and treacherous as they are here,” Sergeant Emmett joked.
Complicating the already hazardous airlift mission was the weight of the load that had to be dropped–too heavy for the C-130 to split the ‘V’ and climb out. So the crew decided to halve the load and make two flights. This meant flying the mission to drop one load on target and returning to Bagram Airfield to reload and fly through the mountains a second time.
“The entire mission probably lasted more than eight hours,” Major Dolan
said. “It was sort of complicated. We had to fly between the rocks,
find the drop zone, deliver the load and turn around and do it again.”
Bad weather made the flights even more difficult.
“I couldn’t actually see the mountains or the drop zone,” Captain
LaBarbera said. “We were completely IMC–instrument meteorological
conditions–the whole time. And on top of that, we had a malfunctioning
anti-icing system which meant ice was building heavy on the left wing.”
Safety of flight was obviously important, but successful completion of the mission meant delivering the goods on target.
“The drop zones we’re trained to hit are fairly large,” Sergeant Snider said. “But this mission didn’t have a standard-sized drop zone.”
In aircrew-talk, “not standard-sized” means small, like hitting a postage stamp from thousands of feet up.
The coalition ground force was growing desperate and, by the time the C-130 lifted into sky, gave word that recovering just a fraction of the load might save them. The 774th EAS responded by hitting the postage stamp of a drop zone with every load, and the ground force recovered them all, 16 in total.
Sergeant Snider credits Lieutenant Standeford’s use of JPADS, the , in contributing to the accuracy of the drop and helping the crew hit the drop zone.
“JPADS is like a smart bomb for beans and bullets,” Sergeant Snider said.
Both flights of the mission were conducted with ‘bingo’ fuel, meaning as little fuel as possible, to avoid any extra weight, he said.
“When you’re flying low and slow, flaps down and no maneuvering, you don’t want to be too heavy in case you have to climb out,” he said.
If enemy fire started coming in, Sergeant Snider said they had a plan for it.
“It’s called, hope they don’t hit us,” Sergeant Snider said.