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Special Delivery

Tonight’s mission was to fly from Kandahar Airfield (KAF) to Bagram Airfield (BAF), pick up specially rigged bundles of fuel and ammunition and parachute those to American forces up near the border of Turkmenistan.

The aircraft would be a C-130J.  The C-130 variants have been around so long that Captain Fred Flintstone may have been the first pilot.  They’ve seen more than fifty years of service.  The aircraft is so good that nobody wants to shed them, so the Air Force simply continues to upgrade a great old horse.  Dozens of countries fly dozens of variants today.

The latest and greatest for general use is the C-130J.  You can spot a “J” from the older variants by looking at the propellers.  Each propeller has six high-tech blades, allowing the aircraft to carry more weight with greater economy.  In Afghanistan, with the “high hot” conditions, pilots say the J can carry 2-3 times more cargo than older variants.

The C-130 crews in Afghanistan have many crucial missions, though the U.S. crews are proud to say that some of their friends are working Haiti.  Here in Afghanistan, they perform such missions as resupply by parachute, or often landing on rough, remote airstrips.  They recover bodies of our lost troops and fly the remains back to base.  The Js can actually carry a firetruck or two fully armored Humvees, which is pretty impressive considering a single Humvee door weighs more than 400 pounds.

Before takeoff, the two pilots go through long checklists using a lot of terms that are unfamiliar to me.  Sounds like a space launch. (They seated me in the cockpit — which they call the “flight deck” — wearing a headset, and so I can hear and see it all.)  The flight deck is so big that even giant Dutch people could stand up and take a step or two with no problems.  There is even a bunk bed behind us.

Some things are easy to understand, “Engine number two,” “flaps,” “brakes,” but they go over the checklist so quickly that my pen has no more chance of following than a sparrow could follow a hawk.

Finally, after several long checklists, we start taxiing to the runway.  We got held up by ATC (Air Traffic Control) when the tower spotted two scrawny dogs crossing the runway.  The pilots scanned but didn’t see them, and finally 1LT April Brown, in the right seat, said, “There they are,” pointed, and Captain John Holland, left seat, got eyes on.  The dogs held up this part of the war for about a minute before trotting away, and then the fighter jets and others kept roaring away.

The small pieces of glass in front of each pilot are called “HUDs”, or Heads Up Displays.  Pilots say the HUDs are great because they can keep their eyes out the windows while still seeing critical information without looking down at the instrument panel.  Notice through the left HUD, a fighter jet is roaring down the runway.  (Just after the dogs left.)  My quarters on KAF are straight ahead past the far side of the runway, so it’s pretty loud here day and night.  Helicopters, C-130s, jets of all sorts.  The enemy has been firing more rockets onto the base, causing some casualties, but to my knowledge have destroyed no aircraft.  Years ago, the Mujahidin more or less ran the Soviet Air Force out of Kandahar with their rocket attacks.  The “Muj” once shot down a Soviet general, captured him, but killed him before they realized they had a general.  Today, the enemy shoots at lot with SAFIRE (Surface to Air Fire) at aircraft and sometimes sparkle the pilots with lasers.  If there is a surface to air missile threat, it’s not presented itself.

The pilots throttle up and we rumble away.  There are actually three pilots aboard and the other is sitting behind me, or down in the cargo bay.  It takes about eighteen months to learn how to fly this aircraft.  One year of pilot training, then six months of training on the C-130J.  Captain Holland said the pilot training is pretty tough, but by the time you get to the C-130 school, you are in the study groove and it gets a bit easier.

That’s Lieutenant April Brown in the right seat.  She’s from San Diego and it’s obvious she loves flying.  After we got up into the darkness, she asked Captain John Holland, left seat, to take the controls so she could snap on her night vision goggles.  They see a lot of shooting stars up here, artillery illumination missions, and other aircraft.

They were kind enough to issue me a set of goggles for the mission, but the helmet and that type of goggles were alien to me so later a helpful loadmaster helped fit the goggles on the helmet and adjusted them.

There is a heck of a lot of air traffic up here, especially near the main airfields.  Over the radio, pilots could be heard with accents that seemed to come from all over the world, talking to air traffic control about headings, altitude, and other matters such as the length of available runway.  Predators and other “drones,” which are always looking down, keep their lights on so that pilots don’t plough into one.

The crew has parachutes in case the aircraft becomes uncontrollable.  I asked a pilot how in the heck he was going to get into a parachute if the airplane was out of control.  Bottom line: at least one pilot is going to have to ride the plane in while the crew gets out.

The first leg of the mission took us to Bagram Airfield (BAF), which must be one of the busiest airports in the world.   BAF is madhouse of traffic and they also take a little rocket fire at times.  The rocket fire is not a big deal, though we do take some KIA and wounded.  On the scale of the war, it’s like mosquito bites.  A nuisance you could do without, but trivial when taken to scale.

To avoid SAFIRE, pilots turn on the landing lights during the last few seconds.

So they taxi behind the “FOLLOW ME,” and we roll by all sorts of jets and helicopters.

And then we park, and go to grab take-away dinners at a nearby DFAC (dining facility) while the airplane is loaded with the supplies that are to be parachuted later tonight.

Twenty pallets weighing a total of about 32,000 pounds are rolled into the cargo bay.  The loadmasters have special training and much responsibility.  If they make a mistake, passengers can be hurt, the aircraft can be damaged, and it could even crash.  Each pallet has information posted on the side, including gross weight.  Before the pallets are loaded, they already have been arranged in the proper order, and a loadmaster then programs in the weights of the pallets and their anchor locations into the C-130J’s computer.  This calculates the CG, or Center of Gravity, which must be within specified constraints.  The computer calculates the gross weight of the aircraft, which is the net aircraft weight, plus fuel, plus cargo.  Gross weight for this mission would be about 150,000lbs.

In addition to the loadmaster’s heavy responsibilities, the riggers who “build” these pallets and attach the parachutes must be on their job.  They call this a CDS, or container delivery system, and they said it’s using LCADS “low cost air delivery system” parachutes that are relatively cheap and do not need to be turned in.  Whereas parachutes for our soldiers nearly always open, the pallets are more likely to burn in (though they seldom do).  This happened once when I was with the British in Iraq, sending us all diving to the dark, desert floor while we heard the pallet screaming in, and then practically explode when it hit the ground.  The honey comb on the bottom is a shock absorber.  Some of the containers carry ammo.  I asked the pilots about the dangers of parachuting relief aid into places like Haiti (remembering when some Kurds were killed by bundles), and they confirmed the dangers.  Problem is, the people you are trying to help are desperate – hence the willingness to use dangerous means to feed them — and so when they see the parachutes floating down, the hungry people rush to catch them, not realizing these things are very heavy and coming down very fast, and then people get crushed and we get blamed for killing people with love.  The pilots try to drop far enough away that people don’t get crushed.

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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