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Senior Airman Roberto Vasquez of the 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron (Aerial Port Flight) uses green glow sticks to guide a cargo loader to a C-17 aircraft ramp Sunday night at Balad Air Base, Iraq.
Senior Airman Roberto Vasquez of the 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron (Aerial Port Flight) uses green glow sticks to guide a cargo loader to a C-17 aircraft ramp Sunday night at Balad Air Base, Iraq. (Ron Jensen / S&S)
Senior Airman Roberto Vasquez of the 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron (Aerial Port Flight) uses green glow sticks to guide a cargo loader to a C-17 aircraft ramp Sunday night at Balad Air Base, Iraq.
Senior Airman Roberto Vasquez of the 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron (Aerial Port Flight) uses green glow sticks to guide a cargo loader to a C-17 aircraft ramp Sunday night at Balad Air Base, Iraq. (Ron Jensen / S&S)
Airmen of the 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron unload a C-17 cargo plane Sunday night at Balad Air Base. Because of the possibility of attack, the planes sometimes are unloaded in eight minutes.
Airmen of the 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron unload a C-17 cargo plane Sunday night at Balad Air Base. Because of the possibility of attack, the planes sometimes are unloaded in eight minutes. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq — They call themselves the Tailchasers, but not because they spend their days in fruitless pursuit of their own posteriors.

Instead, 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron (Aerial Port Flight) members chase aircraft tails to quickly unload the cargo and get the aircraft airborne again.

“We always try to get them turned as quickly as we can, safely,” said Capt. Rob Neal, the flight commander.

The team can unload a cavernous C-17 Globemaster, one of the largest planes in the inventory, in about a third of the time it takes at most stateside bases, Airman 1st Class Thomas Hill said.

“Average, I would say eight minutes, compared to a normal time of 30 to 35 minutes back home,” at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Hill said,

The chase is quite exciting to watch.

The aircraft — be it a C-130 Hercules, a C-141 Starlifter or a C-5 Galaxy — lands and taxis to a spot under the direction of Detachment 5, 721st Air Mobility Operations Group.

Airmen race to the plane with one or more K-loaders, the flat self-propelled vehicles on which the aircraft’s load is placed, or forklifts, whichever is required.

“To us, it’s like a ballet. It’s all choreographed,” Tech. Sgt. Todd Lunge said. “I like just watching it sometimes.”

When the plane stops, someone jumps on the opened ramp and begins signaling the K-loader to approach. Others climb aboard and, with the help of the aircraft crew, prepare the pallets for movement. As one machine moves away from the ramp with a load, another slips in.

Observers of this flight line “Swan Lake” have to watch closely. The curtain falls in little more than the blink of an eye. The airplane engines run the whole time airmen remove the cargo. The Air Force calls this an engine running offload.

And although there is no instant replay if you miss it, there’s always another aircraft right behind.

“A lot of times, we’re running from one plane to another,” Airman Derik Pitts said.

Hill remembered when four C-17s, two C-5s and three C-130s landed within a few minutes of each other. The race began anew.

That’s another difference from back home. At Dover and other stateside bases, the airmen have some idea of when to expect an aircraft.

“Here,” Hill said, “they just drop out of the sky.”

“First come, first served,” Pitts said.

It is hard to compare them with other aerial ports in the Air Force.

No one really keeps track of such things, but Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., and Dover are considered the busiest.

“I can guarantee you, we’re a lot busier than Charleston,” Neal said. Plus, he said, he has a fraction — perhaps a quarter — of the people back home.

Lunge said, however, that the effort can get out of hand. That’s when injuries occur.

“One at a time,” he said. “That’s what I tell them. We don’t take safety for granted.”

There’s another hitch in the effort. Occasionally, Iraqi insurgents fire a mortar shell or rocket from beyond the wire, interrupting the loading process.

“We’re all out here and — ‘Boom! What was that?’” Lunge said.

Work stops, of course, and “everybody runs for cover,” Neal said.

Because of the attacks, the aircraft crews don’t like to dawdle. Their aircraft make large, inviting targets.

Some aircraft are often airborne again 21 minutes after landing, Neal said, meaning the aerial port flight at Balad has some very appreciative customers.

“Oh yes, they care,” he said of the flying crews. “They like it. They like the work we do.”

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