By Staff Sgt. John Wright, 455th Air Expeditionary Wing
/ Published September 26, 2011
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan -- The 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron recently filled its ranks with C-130J Hercules aircraft and aircrews as two new units ripped in to comprise the squadron.
Almost two dozen C-130Js and a full complement of aircrew and maintenance personnel split between California Air National Guard's146th Airlift Wing and Rhode Island Air National Guard's 143rd Airlift Wing replaced C-130H-model guard units from Alaska and New York.
"Our mission is airlift and airdrop to all the forward operating bases within country," said Lt. Col. Bill Willson, 774th EAS commander and C-130J pilot. "The primary way the forward operating bases get supplies is by airlift or airdrop. We are their lifeline of sustainment."
The previous guard units Willson's crews replaced maintained consistently high, fully mission capable and sortie effectiveness rates, but his people are ready to tackle the challenge and set the bar even higher, since the C-130J model is considered the "latest and greatest."
In their first month alone, the 774 EAS flew more than 900 sorties with a 99.9 percent sortie effectiveness rate, completing approximately 40 airdrops and delivering more than 3,100 tons of cargo.
The C-130J incorporates state-of-the-art technology to reduce manpower requirements, lower operating and support costs. The aircrafts' improved engines enables the J model to climb faster and higher, flies farther at a higher cruise speed, and takes off and lands in a shorter distance. It has 15 extra feet in the fuselage, increasing usable space in the cargo compartment.
"These airplanes are considerably more capable than the H model," Willson said. "It's the equivalent of adding an additional engine and two pallet positions. It can carry approximately 40 percent more load, giving us a much higher fully mission capable rate. We can actually do the same job with 10 Js that it takes 15 Hs to do."
Willson said one of the more significant improvements is the ability to more accurately airdrop from high altitudes, which makes it safer for the aircrews, especially in the area of operations.
"We have the capability of doing a joint precision air drop system drop that requires dropping a Sonde out of the airplane," Willson, a Thousand Oaks, Calif., native said.
A Sonde is a device attached to a parachute that takes wind readings every 500 feet and transmits the information back to the aircraft. At that point, the airplane's computers determine a computed air release point.
They fly to the CARP, which is accurate to within one meter, and let the bundles out, Willson said.
The automated systems like the JPADS Sonde airdrop make the job smoother for the 774 EAS loadmasters like Master Sgt. Jessica Barry.
"The J makes my job much easier," the Pawtucket, R.I., native said. "We have a computer that controls our load plan. We also have electric locks as opposed to ratchet locks. It's a very efficient 'push button' system."
As a loadmaster, Barry is responsible for configuring and overseeing the loading of people and cargo onto the aircraft. However, even though the J model makes the job easier, Barry said the job has unique challenges in Afghanistan.
Ordinarily, the cargo and airdrop bundles are planned well in advance and a computer comes up with how it should be loaded on the aircraft.
"In this deployed environment, we get a lot of last-minute requests to add cargo," Barry said. "So, we have to manually figure out how to accommodate the additional weight. We don't mind though. It's very rewarding knowing we're getting the troops on the ground what they need."
While Willson and Barry comprise the aircrew, the people who make sure the planes are fit to fly are maintainers like Master Sgt. Jason Sturtevant, C-130J crew chief and a Warwick, R.I., native.
As a maintainer, Sturtevant services and works on any discrepancies on the aircraft. He performs, preflight, postflight and throughflight inspections.
"We do everything from servicing hydraulic fluid to liquid oxygen," Sturtevant said. "Basically, we look at the entire aircraft and its systems."
The 20-year veteran said the challenges of his job include parts supply and high-operations tempo, but, like Barry, he diligently works through the problems. He said in the end, he finds the job highly rewarding.
"I love watching these planes fly, knowing I'm helping the guys on the ground," he said. "I feel like I'm directly contributing to the fight. I also take pride in keeping my aircrews safe."
While the 774 EAS is comprised of Air National Guard Airmen from different units and varying walks of life, they have deployed together since 2004 and consider themselves one big family.
"We complement each other very well," Willson said. "One of the nice things about the guard is you stay with the same people for sometimes decades. Most of the pilots here I have flown with for 20 years."
The continuity that comes with working with the same people for so long is something the loadmasters and maintainers tout as the reason they operate like a well-oiled machine.
"There is a great chemistry here," Barry said. "These guys are great to work with."
Sturtevant echoed the loadmaster's words.
"We maintainers mesh very well," the sergeant said. "They are very easy to work with. I noticed as soon as we got here, everybody just wanted to work together."
Willson also noted the sense of pride and dedication his unit has for the work they perform.
"We all recognize the importance of coming here to do this mission." Willson said. "We have a tremendous sense of patriotism. Most of these people have very well-paying jobs on the outside, yet they still come here. They do this because they want to. The love of wearing the uniform and doing the job outweighs everything else."