Strategic airlift crews fight an exhausting war in anonymity
Staff Sgt. Eric Bratton, left, directs a forklift unloading an Army satellite communications truck from an Air Force cargo plane on May 12, 2012, at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.
ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT — A C-17 lifted out of Ramstein Air Base, Germany, one afternoon last month packed with crates of servicemembers’ household goods up front and explosive munitions stacked on the cargo ramp in back. From there they could be jettisoned in a hurry if a fire broke out.
Minutes after takeoff, the plane’s commander, Lt. Col. John Wiltse, called out “copilot’s aircraft” and turned over the controls. The young officer to his right, Capt. Rick Loesch, acknowledged the command crisply, like Wiltse requires.
Slumping forward until his forehead rested against the instrument panel, Wiltse let out a sigh that deepened into a yawn. He took a long pull from a Monster energy drink, the first of several heavy caffeine doses he would consume during the nine-hour flight to Dover Air Force Base, Del.
For the previous five days, the crew had hopscotched around the Middle East and Europe, carrying food, ammunition, fuel and troops — the materiel and human components of the war in Afghanistan, which has depended on airlift likely more than any other major conflict. Now, after crossing more time zones than they could count and subsisting on precious little sleep, they were in the final stretch of the mission, and would reach home at Joint Base Lewis-McChord., Wash., the next day.
It’s this tail-end stage of the mission, Wiltse said, when strict attention to discipline and detail can mean the difference between a smooth trip home and a mounting string of errors.
Over decades as a military pilot, first for the Navy and now the Air Force, Wiltse, 46, has developed a wry set of guidelines he calls his rules of flying. In the waning hours of this mission, No. 2 was the key: Don’t become world famous.
Avoiding fame is probably not a rule of thumb that would occur to a fighter or bomber pilot facing the potential death-or-glory calculus of combat. But for long-distance airlift fliers, men and women who usually operate far from the front lines of battle doing grueling but obscure logistical work that powers any war effort, emerging from the background generally isn’t a good thing.
“There’s really no good way you become famous in this job,” Wiltse observed, relating a story about an airlift pilot who inadvertently destroyed his plane’s brakes, blocking a runway and temporarily shutting down a major aerial port. Among pilots, he became a worldwide topic of gossip.
Wiltse a day earlier had forgotten to close an isolation valve when he started his plane’s engines, he said — hardly a catastrophe, but a disturbing reminder of how easy it is to lose track of the details as long duty days pile up and exhaustion builds.
Wiltse resumed control of the massive C-17 and Loesch tore into a sandwich. Immediately, Loesch got a light-hearted chiding from his newly caffeinated commander for breaking Wiltse’s flying rule No. 5 — the control pedestal between the pilot seats isn’t a dinner table.
“When you get tired, what you have to rely on is your training, good habits and doing things the right way,” Wiltse said. “The thing we have to combat is indifference.”
A different kind of flier
The flight out of Ramstein was one of 750 flown worldwide each day by crews and aircraft from Air Mobility Command, or AMC, the arm of the Air Force in charge of airlifting U.S military cargo, transporting people and refueling other aircraft in midflight.
Weariness is standard when the demand for airlift, the speediest means of delivery, is insatiable. Impatient commanders don’t want to wait for supplies and equipment they believe, correctly or not, that they need now.
As one official said, “Everyone thinks the thing they want should have been flown in yesterday.”
Though it costs far more to move supplies by airlift than by ship, truck or rail, it’s the logistical tool of choice for time-sensitive and lifesaving missions — whether delivering food to earthquake victims in Haiti in 2010 or vehicle armor kits to shield troops from roadside bombs. More mundane needs, like a missing beam holding up a downrange construction project, can qualify, too.
It takes a different kind of flier. These aircrews measure their missions in weeks instead of hours, like most pilots and crew do. Mobility pilots live by a mantra — “Answering the call so others can prevail” — that drives home their status as supporting players.
“They’re not flashy,” said Brig. Gen. Larry Martin, vice commander of 18th Air Force, the flight operations component of AMC, which is headquartered at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. “Nothing against my bomber or fighter brethren, but mobility pilots take pride primarily in helping others. … You could say we’re not the story, but we’re here so others can be the story.”
Creating an ‘air bridge’
The supporting players have become central figures in the war in Afghanistan, thanks to the country’s landlocked position next to an increasingly disgruntled Pakistan. In retaliation for a firefight with NATO forces last year in which 24 Pakistani troops were killed, the country shut down crucial ground-based supply lines that were the easiest route for many kinds of war materiel into Afghanistan. Despite months of negotiations, the lines remain closed.
Nevertheless, supplies never dropped to critical levels thanks to the Air Force, which created an “air bridge” in the days following the closure, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, said last month.
About 40 percent of the cargo reaching Afghanistan now goes in by plane, or by a combination of aircraft and other transportation modes, said Cynthia Bauer, a spokeswoman for U.S. Transportation Command, which directs all military cargo operations. Before Pakistan shut down the supply routes, the portion reaching Afghanistan by air was 30 percent while, typically, the U.S. military airlifts just 20 percent of its cargo, she said.
Despite the increased emphasis on airlift, overall cargo hauled by air into Afghanistan has tailed off since last year. The total in the first four months of 2012 fell 18.5 percent to about 154 million pounds, compared with 190 million pounds during the same period in 2011, when AMC was still hauling in mass amounts of equipment for the 30,000-troop surge that had recently entered Afghanistan.
Things are moving in the other direction now, with troop numbers dropping by 10,000 late last year and scheduled to fall another 23,000 by fall as the remaining surge troops are withdrawn.
Now, it’s the volume coming out of Afghanistan that’s on the rise, said Maj. Gen. David Allvin, commander of AMC’s Tanker-Airlift Control Center, which schedules and controls cargo, passenger and refueling flights worldwide. As the war winds down approaching the end of 2014, the demands of removing the vast amount of equipment in Afghanistan could fall heavily on the Air Force’s shoulders.
Already, vehicles and other loads that can only be brought out by air are piling up at vast “retrograde cargo” yards at Bagram and Kandahar air bases. Allvin is pushing to load every plane leaving the country to the limit before the real crunch hits when a fast-paced drawdown begins.
“A lot of planes were coming back empty,” he said, something that’s changing quickly.
Risk of burning out
Average mission lengths have decreased by a few days since the height of the surge, fliers say. Nevertheless, active-duty mobility crews still endure some of the most taxing schedules in the military, often spending 160 days a year away on missions, Allvin said.
The workload was even higher a few years ago, a former strategic airlift pilot said.
“The ops tempo during my time in the C-17 was pretty high, with most new pilots and loadmasters being gone 200-plus days a year,” said Capt. Cameron Sheafer, who has since left the airlift world for a piloting job he says he can’t publicly specify, but which allows him to see his wife and two young children daily. “There are a handful of guys I know that ate it up, but the majority started burning out after two or three years.”
He said he knows other pilots who also moved on to improve their quality of life.
“Twenty-four-hour duty days, constant time-zone skipping, eating out of shopettes, lack of exercise,” he said. “All of it had a cumulative effect of wearing guys out over time.”
Wiltse, who would head out on another mission just days after returning to McChord, agrees.
“You can’t turn your body on and off like a light switch,” he said. “On these missions, meaningful rest doesn’t happen. … The effect is cumulative. I see it in the mirror and in the faces of guys I work with.”
Sheafer said that when he raised the idea of shorter duty days with a commander, the response was a shrug and the observation, “You have to be tough to fly heavies.”
‘We keep coming back’
The grueling work far from the limelight is something many airlift crews accept, and even embrace.
“To me, this is exceptionally rewarding,” Staff Sgt. Eric Bratton said during another C-17 flight, this one flying from Ramstein to Bagram.
He was one of the loadmasters, crew responsible for loading and securing cargo on aircraft for a “contingency mission” carrying several satellite trucks and communications gear the Army needed quickly at a forward operating base near the Pakistan border.
“This is vital equipment,” he said. “You can easily see the effect it has on the war and what it would mean if those soldiers didn’t have it.”
On another mission flight from Dover Air Force Base to Germany, Lt. Col. Jeff Sladko, a reservist from the Alaska National Guard who as a civilian pilots airliners, said the airlift missions he flies a few months a year are a welcome adventure in the midst of more mundane airline flying.
“It’s just more satisfying,” Sladko said. “In airline flying you’re isolated — go in the cockpit and close the door. Doing this, there’s a greater sense of teamwork, and I have broader range of responsibilities. I need that challenge.”
One of the responsibilities of veterans like Sladko is partnering with less experienced active-duty crews and mentoring them, a key part of the Air Force’s recent Total Force Integration plan. On the trans-Atlantic flight, however, he was paired with another experienced Air Guard pilot, Maj. Doug Dickson.
“Sounds cliche, but we do it for God, country and apple pie,” Dickson said. “This is crucial work for the country. I don’t know if you can find a more patriotic set of people than the National Guard. We can walk away anytime we want, but we keep coming back.”
For Wiltse, on his nonstop back-and-forth delivery schedule, the importance of his missions is something he grasps rationally — some of the supplies could make it to Afghanistan no other way. That realization doesn’t erase a feeling in the background that he’s not really part of it, and the war is something going on at a distance.
“We fly, we land, we drop off stuff and leave, never spending any appreciable time in Afghanistan,” Wiltse said.
Some fliers of the smaller, rougher planes that land daily at forward operating bases around Afghanistan, or that swoop low between the mountains and parachute supplies into isolated outposts, see things similarly. Strategic airlift may deliver the bullets from the United States, but the tactical airlift crews put them into the hands of soldiers — sometimes in the middle of a firefight
“There’s a noticeable difference between us and them,” said a C-130 pilot, a veteran of tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, who asked not to be identified. “You can see it even in the dining facilities. The ones who are in Afghanistan all the time sit here, and guys who are just passing through, who look like they’ve only been wearing the desert flight suits for five days, are over there.”
Wiltse doesn’t always feel that way, however. One sobering part of his mission changes his perspective from harried deliveryman back to someone fighting a war.
On the leg of the mission prior to the one out of Ramstein, Wiltse’s crew had cleared the plane of war materiel, set up litter carriers and helped medical personnel bring onboard several wounded warriors for transfer to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. The Air Force transfers thousands of patients each year on such aeromedical evacuation flights, and aircrews uniformly call it their most sacred duty.
“It’s humbling to go around the plane and take a look at these guys, some of them walking wounded, but some of whom are in terrible shape,” Wiltse said. “They’re the reality here, and helping them the way we’re able to is the most rewarding thing we do.”
In a war uniquely dependent on airlift, some loads are far more precious than others.