By Bob Oldham
As C-130J Super Hercules aircraft hop around the countryside of Afghanistan almost daily delivering supplies and troops to the forward operating bases, it’s easy to see why the 48th Airlift Squadron’s “Hoppers” feel such a vested interest in the fight: They’ve been training the Air Force’s C-130J pilots and loadmasters since 2004.
While milestones of cargo airlifted and passengers hauled continue to climb - like a C-130J on takeoff in the Afghanistan area of responsibility - the 48th stays focused, continuing to train the next generation of airlifter in the latest model of the venerable C-130.
With numerous successes on the battlefield for the C-130J, it could be easy to overlook what it takes to get a C-130J war-fighter to the fight.
“It’s a daily challenge. That’s the honest truth,” said Lt. Col. John Vaughn, 48th Airlift Squadron commander, referring to balancing the training needs of his own C-130J crews while producing combat-ready pilots and loadmasters for war-fighting units, such as the 41st Airlift Squadron here on base or for squadrons at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, or Dyess Air Force Base, Texas.
With a 90-percent turnover rate in the last year and a half, he’s got his hands full, but it’s manageable, he said.
“We don’t have all the experience I’d like to have, but part of that is because we’ve had to train nearly all of our own instructor pilots,” said the commander of squadron members who wear unit patches with a giant green grasshopper on them. As with any new weapon system, keeping the schoolhouse viable while trying to stand up units that converted from older E- and H-model Herks to the longer, sleeker C-130J is tough. The converting units require trained bodies. The dilemma is there are really only two sources of trained C-130J pilots and loadmasters: the 48th and the 41st, which was the only active-duty operational C-130J squadron until Ramstein started to convert in 2009.
The C-130J first joined the Air Force’s inventory 12 years ago in February 1999, initially going to the Air Force’s reserve component. There are now two versions of the J in use. The first, called a “stubby,” are similar to its C-130E and H in size and shape and can carry up to six cargo pallets, 74 litters, 16 container delivery system bundles, 92 combat troops or 64 paratroopers or any combination thereof. The stretch version, referred to as the C-130J-30, can haul up to eight pallets, 97 litters, 24 CDS bundles, 128 combat troops, 92 paratroopers or any combination thereof.
One might think the reserve component could be part of the schoolhouse solution, but “the [C-130J] Guard units are busy,” Colonel Vaughn said. In fact, the Maryland Air National Guard C-130Js, which are the shorter version, are headed to the 48th, and the 48th’s stretch planes will shift to Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., as the Air Force shifts to put more of the stretch versions into units that fly operational missions. Maryland’s Baltimore unit is transitioning to the C-27 Joint Cargo Aircraft.
Meanwhile, the schoolhouse must still churn out combat-ready aircrews on time. And it takes a dedicated cadre of instructors to meet that mission.
“You just have to figure out what kind of student you’re getting, making sure you’re giving the right instruction tailored to that student so they can get it,” said Staff Sgt. Leilani McClain, an instructor loadmaster in the 48th.
And the workload has picked up for C-130J loadmasters as they’re now responsible for some systems, such as electrical and hydraulic systems when the aircraft is in use because there are two less crew positions - no flight engineer and no navigator. The pilot and co-pilot are responsible for in-flight navigation.
“It’s more mental now. It’s not as physical as the old E and H,” Sergeant McClain said.
During a previous deployment on a legacy C-130, she said she felt like a flight attendant because of all the passengers her crew would haul compared to cargo. “Pretty much that’s all we did every day, all day was pax,” she said.
That’s changed on the J as crews air drop supplies with pinpoint accuracy throughout Afghanistan’s mountainous regions or via engine running off-loads at forward operating bases.
“When we were on the J, we were getting 37,000-pound vehicles, and then we would turn around and do an air drop. Our load capacity was just way broader than what the E and H had offered,” she said.
Naturally, the training the 48th provides its student pilots is heavy on airmanship - flying the plane - and aerial delivery of cargo to a drop zone on time. Pilots are trained to the aircraft commander standard, even though astudent may be a brand new lieutenant in the Air Force. It’s that level of training all at once that is the hallmark of the 48th’s syllabus.
Always looking for feedback, select squadron members took the unit on a roadshow to its customers to seek feedback. One area they’re in the process of improving -based on customer feedback - is giving students additional time in the right seat conducting short-field or assault landings. Previously, much of that was done with the student in the left seat, but when the student would arrive at their duty station after graduation, they most likely would be sitting in the right seat. The view and duties are different for each pilot, so allowing students some right-seat time during assault landings will help them become better-experienced aviators more quickly.
Adept, responsive and reliable are words that help describe the 48th’s mission, and their Airmen are ready to hop to it.