OTOPENI AIR BASE, Romania --
Somewhere in Romania, two propeller-driven aircraft carved their way through a mountain range. The pilots rode their aircraft like flying stallions, surfing low over the valley.
Passengers and aircrew clung to the closest stable object next to them, trying not to fall over as the aircraft weaved side to side, up and down, and steered clear of the hills jutting out of the ground.
In the lead aircraft, the ramp towards the back opened, ushering a torrent of wind into the cabin. The horizon no longer appeared to be horizontal as the aircraft banked left and right. Some of the passengers held their stomachs, trying not to lose their breakfast.
The mission was part of Carpathian Fall 2017, a bilateral exercise conducted between U.S. and Romanian military members.
For those not accustomed to flying in military aircraft, riding along in the 37th Airlift Squadron’s missions can be a harrowing experience. But for the pilots, it’s what they do every day.
“I get paid to fly airplanes all over the world, and it’s a pretty awesome experience,” said 1st Lt. Michael Thomas, 37th AS pilot. “I joined (the Air Force) to see the world and travel. Being a pilot has allowed me to do that; it has allowed me to work hard at something I love to do.”
Thomas said his career as an Air Force pilot afforded him many opportunities other people can only dream of. He expressed the multitude of scenarios people can experience if they are in his position.
“Going on missions throughout Europe and Africa, you have a thing where you land in a country which some people don’t even know is on the map,” he said. “You take a second to realize how cool it is. You have this image of what you want to do in your life, and you take a second and say, ‘man I’m in Bucharest, Romania. I would never be in Bucharest if I didn’t become a pilot.’”
The 37th AS leaves its mark on Europe through multiple alliances forged with other Air Forces on the continent. Airmen of the squadron regularly conduct field training deployments throughout the region to strengthen partnerships with NATO allies.
Thomas emphasized the importance of multilateral training, saying if something occurs within the Europe or any other part of the world, interoperability will play a key role in mission success. He added that exercises with partner nations give them the chance to sharpen their skills through exchanging information.
“It’s exposure and it’s experience,” Thomas said. “God forbid if something (happens) somewhere, we’re all going to be working together to respond. They get better from us showing things they’ve never seen before, and we get better from them showing us things we’ve never seen before. Then we understand each other’s capabilities and what we’re talking about.”
“Each Air Force speaks its own language, and to mesh those things so we can understand each other is pretty cool,” he added.
The 37th AS is older than the independent Air Force, having begun as the 37th Transport Squadron in 1942. Some of the highlights of the squadron’s legacy are its participation in the airborne assaults on Normandy during World War II and the repatriation of U.S. prisoners of war from Vietnam in 1973. These however, are just a couple of the many missions the squadron has accomplished since its inception.
The 37th AS was first assigned to Patterson Field, Ohio, when the Air Force was still known as the U.S. Army Air Corps. Over the past decades, it has moved to different installations around the world before settling in Ramstein Air Base, Germany, in 1994.
The squadron has used a host of different aircraft throughout its service, the latest a fleet of C-130Js.
“The C-130J is capable of short field landings and takeoffs on landing zones, (and also) paved and dirt surfaces as short as 3000 ft.,” said Maj. Corey Preston, 37th AS C-130J instructor pilot. “Overall, its capabilities are similar to other C-130J variants. We train to fly in a multitude of environments to include inclement weather and mountainous terrain.”
Preston said he enjoys training the next generation of C-130J pilots and the opportunity to play a role in helping build alliances in Europe.
“My favorite aspect of my job is working with the amazing young-some old, men and women of the 37 AS,” Preston said. “The travel's not so bad either. I'd say there is nothing more rewarding than successfully executing a challenging and complex mission.”
Thomas said one of the enjoyable factors of his job is the camaraderie between him and his fellow pilots. He also pointed out a special connection between C-130 pilots regardless of the generation and model.
“I like the people that I’m around on a day to day basis,” Thomas said. “I think we all are very similar, and we all have each other’s backs because we understand what we’ve been through and we have a common experience in pilot training. Being a pilot, you understand you have a lot of responsibility on your shoulders. You accept that responsibility because that’s what you’re paid to do.”
Thomas expressed his gratitude in being part of a time-honored tradition as an Air Force pilot. He sees himself and his peers as the continuation of a legacy they will eventually pass on to the generations coming after them.
Thomas referenced interactions he would have with veterans who were also pilots in their day.
“They just see me as a younger versions of themselves,” he said. “It’s pretty cool and it’s pretty humbling. Before I know it, I’ll be the old crusty guy that the young guys are coming to talking about wanting to be a pilot. I would recommend it to anybody. It’s challenging; it’s not easy, and it’s hard, but it’s definitely rewarding.”