Expeditionary Airmen carry load of AF mission

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Nicole Sikorski
  • 86th Airlift WIng Public Affairs
Hours before propellers start and wheels leave the ground, engines sit idle and everything is quiet. One group of Airmen are the first boots to step for the mission.
As the first Airmen to step foot on the aircraft, they review checklists and inspect it for flight. 

From securing cargo to ensuring passenger safety and comfort, C-130J Super Hercules loadmasters from the 37th Airlift Squadron are the heart of the airlift mission.
Lives are in the hands of these select few, who work around the clock and globe to deliver air support whenever it may be needed.

The part of the job many people don't see are the 15-hour days when the aircrews land in Nigeria in the early hours of the morning, explained Senior Airman Tristan Geray, 37th AS loadmaster. In the dark and early hours of the morning, there are times when there is more than 10,000 pounds of lumber to be hand-downloaded in the silence of a vacant air field, she continued.

"At the same time as sleeping in many hotels, I've slept on a lot of cots and done my fair share of sweating," she said.  "I've known since I decided to come into the Air Force that this job was the one I wanted. I've never once regretted it, and that's how I know I'm in the right job for me."

Properly functioning aircraft not only ensure that things get where they need to go but also play a key role in the bigger picture. These C-130J experts have a heavy hand in the U.S. Air Force's forward presence in Europe, allowing work with allies to develop and improve ready air forces' capabilities of maintaining regional security.

C-130J pilots work primarily in the front of the aircraft, whereas loadmasters are responsible for the rest. According to Capt. Brian Shea, 37th AS pilot, it is hard to put into words how much a pilot relies on a loadmaster and their ability to communicate and solve problems.

"Our job on C-130s is to ensure cargo and personnel movement into a combat environment," said Shea. "Trust is critical between loadmasters and pilots because we rely on them to fly safely. They do all of the work in the back of the airplane, and we need their expertise."

After almost a year of technical training in their field, C-130J loadmasters are qualified not only in basic loading but also in cargo and personnel airdrop operations. That training equips them with the skills to balance the weight of each load on the plane, which affects whether or not the aircraft stays in flight.

Cargo drops are a common occurrence in their world, Geray said, but there is one line of work to which most loadmasters can never get completely comfortable. 

Personnel airdrops are a large part of delivering air support throughout Europe and Africa and go smoothly for most throughout their careers, but loadmasters must train to save lives in case of a mishap in the air. 

Although many don't experience an issue, Senior Airman Emily Mitchell, 37th AS loadmaster, experienced the value of readiness firsthand when a paratrooper trailed the back of the C-130J when his parachute chord caught and wrapped around his arm.

"I couldn't believe it when it was happening," she said. "It was scary.  His life was in my hands, and that's not something people go through every day.  I was extremely relieved when I pulled him in and even more so when I had been told he had made a full recovery. It's an experience I will never forget."

Accidents don't happen often, but the Airmen at the 37th AS stay mission-ready, 24-7 for whatever comes their way.

The hardships of meeting the mission do have their payoff Geray said.

"It's been my dream to travel the world, and it is eye-opening to see other ways of life," Geray noted. "You learn to appreciate a lot of what you have and realize that there are many ways of doing things, living and being on this planet. This job lets me do that."