C130s shuttle around Afghanistan, ferrying personnel and supplies
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — There’s a 5-ton pallet of garbage bags sitting on a loader at Bagram Air Field on this May evening, and Senior Airman Ryan Berry and Master Sgt. John Beal are trying to figure out whether there’s a way they can position it in the back of the giant C-130J Hercules without overloading sections of the cargo hold.
It’s about 9:30 p.m., and Berry and his three crewmates — two pilots up front and a third in the back helping the loadmaster — are only a third of the way through a six-leg, 10-hour route that will see them hauling passengers and cargo across Afghanistan.
As the number of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan dropped from around 150,000 to about 12,000 today, the work of C-130 crews — the “truckers” of Afghanistan — scaled back as well.
But their work is as critical as ever, particularly given how dangerous overland travel has become. Without these crews, troops don’t get food, ammunition or parts, and transportation around the country grinds to a halt.
“If it wasn’t for us, operations would stop,” said Beal, the superintendent —or senior enlisted airman — of the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron.
Tonight’s flight is one of about a half-dozen supply runs that the crews of the 774th EAS — currently manned by the 39th Airlift Squadron out of Dyess Air Force Base in Texas — will make this day.
That’s a fraction of the swarms of flights that filled Afghan airspace at the height of the war. In those days, aircraft of all types crowded Bagram’s tarmacs, and crews often had to keep the engines running during offloads at remote forward operating bases to be ready for take-off because more arriving planes needed to take their space.
This C-130 is taking the crew up to Mazar-e-Sharif and back to Bagram, then down to Kandahar, over to Helmand’s Camp Dwyer, back to Kandahar, and then up home to Bagram. Sunset was turning the nearby mountains pink when the trip began. By the time the crew touched down from their last leg, sunrise would be just moments away.
Despite the smaller numbers of crews and flights, today’s work isn’t any easier.
“The pace is still the same,” said Maj. Christopher Valliere, the 774th’s assistant director of operations, who was at Bagram in 2009 and 2012. “The difference is you’re not going directly to the front line all the time.”
As troops poured into Afghanistan during the 2009 surge, flights ran around the clock, carrying new units and their equipment to the FOBs that were being rapidly erected around the country. Hercules crews landed on airstrips at smaller airports that hadn’t been maintained for years, or even just on bare land in remote areas that Army units cleared for them. Sometimes, when there was no place to land at all, they simply dropped supplies from the air.
Today’s flights are much tamer. There are only a handful of NATO bases left in the country, though the crews will occasionally be dispatched to airstrips that “open up for a short time,” Valliere said — Air Force-speak for special operations’ and other units’ one-off missions.
Still, the work is no less dangerous. Loadmasters in the back are as wary as ever, looking for tracer fire or the telltale puff of a hand-held missile at launch. On the ground, at the less-secure Camp Dwyer, Berry keeps his body armor and helmet on — and the plane’s bright lights off — while moving cargo in and out of the hold. Senior Airman Michael Bates, 22, of Athens, Ala., who helps maintain this aircraft, said a rocket launched at one of the country’s airfields once landed a mere 100 yards behind him.
“You almost have to be more on your game here,” said Valliere, 33, of Warwick, R.I. “We have to fight the idea that it’s a big airfield (so it must be) safer.”
Tonight, the crew is flying mail and rations to Mazar-e-Sharif, sleepy soldiers down to Kandahar, and middle-aged contractors back to Bagram.
“Anything you see (in Afghanistan), we’ve probably had a hand in delivering,” said Beal, 33, of Lueders, Texas.
At each stop, Berry races through the back of the aircraft, scribbling on manifests, waving pallets on, and reconfiguring benches to accommodate passengers and cargo.
As they prepare for each takeoff, the plane’s pilot Maj. Timothy Fast, 34, of Baltimore, Ohio, and co-pilot 1st Lt. Paul Harrington, 25, of Cumberland, R.I., flash fingers at each other as they cycle through preflight checks. Rolling out to one runway, they cautiously suss out the intentions of a wayward truck. On takeoff at another, an air traffic controller warns them to avoid a drone circling overhead.
During transit from airfield to airfield, the ground below gives little sign of war. It’s mostly dark, with an occasional cluster of orange lights illuminating a small village. In the cockpit, the aircraft’s low hum plays background to the crew’s chatter about yoga classes, an impending birth and the unusual number of shooting stars zipping across the sky.
Berry, 26, of Bedford, Texas, was deployed to Bagram in October 2015 when a C-130 in his unit crashed at Jalalabad. The crew did not survive, and Berry gets quiet at the memory. At Bagram, as the airmen try to figure out if they can accommodate the trash bags, a concrete blast wall painted with a memorial to the doomed flight stands in the distance.
The crew’s four-month deployment is coming to an end, and they will soon be replaced by a sister unit. The squadrons rotate through Afghanistan so frequently, however, this team expects they will be back before too long.
Capt. Brennan Wolford, 29, of Thornville, Ohio, is the pilot recruited to help Berry in the back, after another loadmaster got sick. He explains the problem with the heavy pallet. “This is a flying seesaw,” he said of the enormous aircraft. Cargo has to be positioned strategically around the plane’s center of gravity. The pilots spend most of the flight trying to keep the aircraft balanced. In 2013, a Boeing 747 operated by a private cargo company crashed at Bagram after an improperly secured load shifted on takeoff.
The ground teams at Bagram want the trash-bag pallet off their hands. They’re under pressure to keep shipments moving within prescribed schedules. But the airmen can’t find a way to position it. The pallet weighs 10,200 pounds, or 200 more than the aircraft can handle.
There isn’t time to repack the load. The crew, which has four more legs and six more hours to go, is eager to keep to moving. As the plane takes off for Kandahar, the trash bags stay behind.