Air Force Cargo Pilots Train for War in ‘Nevadastan’
The 400,000-pound aircraft suddenly swoops down to 500 feet above the ground, dodging artillery and hopping over ridge-tops so violently that it sends everything — even strapped-down bags and passengers — into midair.
Air Force airlift crews routinely practice low-level flying and landing on dirt strips, but for units based on the East Coast, especially, it is difficult to find rugged, mountainous terrain where they can train for future deployments to Afghanistan.
The United States Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., conducts a bi-annual mobility air forces exercise on the Nevada test and training range to give crews the opportunity to conduct low-level flying, troop and cargo airdrops and landings in the mountainous desert environment. Airmen jokingly call the range “Nevadastan” because the southwestern U.S. desert bears a striking resemblance to terrain that they’ve encountered on missions in Afghanistan.
The exercise is planned and executed by weapons school students as their culminating graduation event. A handful of C-17 and C-130 pilots and navigators attend the six-month weapons course each year. Every airlift squadron is assigned one weapons officer.
Pilots and loadmasters from the 436th and 512th Airlift Wings based at Dover Air Force Base, Del., merged last week to form an expanded C-17 crew to participate in the exercise with active, reserve and Guard units from Alaska, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Oklahoma and Washington. A total of 40 aircraft — 22 C-17s and 18 C-130s — flew in the event.
The exercise tests new tactics that help to validate the Defense Department’s capabilities to deploy anywhere in the world, said Capt. Bradley Rueter, weapons officer for the 3rd Airlift Squadron. He graduated from the weapons course last year and was leading the Dover team through the exercise as part of the school’s effort to push out alumni to keep tactical knowledge flowing out to the fleet, said Lt. Col. Rick Sheetz, 436th operations deputy group commander.
The 174-foot C-17 Globemaster III can land on dirt, scoop up troops and cargo and fly from the East Coast to Afghanistan.
In the exercise, the aircraft’s main objective was to deliver troops to a landing zone called Keno, and then to airlift personnel to another landing site at Creech Air Force Base, where crews fly the remotely piloted Predator and Reaper aircraft.
Threatening the aircraft were a “red team” of hostile fighters and simulated surface-to-air threats ranging from shoulder-fired missiles to anti-aircraft artillery.
Once the plane crossed into the training range, it descended to 500 feet above the desert floor. It snaked its way through valleys and hopped over peaks in negative-gravity maneuvers that popped bags up into the air and just as quickly plastered them back down onto the floor. Airmen call the tactics “aggressive maneuvering,” but it feels more like a runaway roller coaster ride.
“It’s bumpy because of the turbulence involved with being that low,” explained Rueter. “Sometimes we were in a valley and we needed to get to the other side of a ridge, and there was no way to snake our way in there, so we had to do what’s called a ridge crossing.”
In a ridge crossing, the crew must maintain its low altitude the entire time, despite large obstacles such as mountaintops that appear in their flight path. Pilots climb to avoid a collision and once they clear the terrain they have to force the aircraft back down to its original flying level. “That is when everything goes negative [gravity] and everything goes flying in the air,” said Rueter.
Even for experienced pilots like Capt. Patrick McClintock, an instructor with the 3rd Airlift Squadron who has flown C-5s and C-17s for 10 years, flying in the exercise was challenging.
He described the low-level maneuvers from the cockpit as “insane.”
Rueter called it a “unique training opportunity that we try to take advantage of whenever we can.”
Later, the plane banked hard in 60-degree turns, putting 1- to 2 G’s on the plane. “At 3,000 feet, it’s not as intense. But at 500 feet, going 400 miles an hour, the ground comes at you pretty quick if you’re not up on your toes,” said Capt. Jason Pennypacker, aircraft commander with the 326th Airlift Squadron.
If the pilot were to become distracted at that altitude and at those airspeeds, the time to impact to the ground would be just a few seconds. “That is why we practice it,” said Rueter.
The constant chatter on the five radios complicates the low-level flying. The Dover aircraft was the last of a four-ship of C-17s executing the mission. The other three planes hailed from Travis Air Force Base, N.J.; March Air Force Base, Calif.; and Altus Air Force Base, Okla.
Flying into Keno takes a full hour of constant zigzagging, rapid turns and dramatic maneuvers. Two F-15E Strike Eagle fighters providing a combat air patrol over the landing zone circled above the airlifters looking for potential threats. “They were talking directly to us at some point and giving us some situational awareness, some idea of what was happening,” said Rueter.
“The fighter guys are very interested in learning how we do business so they can figure out how to support us better. So the education process is for everybody,” he said.
The dirt strip landing is delayed because of a temporary backup on the runway. A pop-up threat on the ground requires one of the F-15E fighters to eliminate it before the crew can proceed.
“That was nice to have that feeling of dedicated air-to-ground cover for us,” said Sheetz.
The aircraft manages to avoid being shot down by the red team out on the range. “We spend a lot of time in mission planning talking about who is going to be on what radio,” said Rueter.
“You have to remember that the entire point of doing that is so that we can focus on looking outside, and letting the pilot focus on being at 500 feet and 400 miles an hour while he’s doing ridge crossings and looking for threats.”
Communications is one of the challenges that aircrews face in combat. “It’s such a dynamic environment out there right now that what happens is, people lose their situational awareness and they don’t communicate or they forget to communicate,” said McClintock, who returned in February from a four-month deployment to Al Udeid Air Base near Qatar. One of the messages that Rueter and other weapons officers are trying to propagate through the fleet is the need to formulate solid communications plans for every mission, he added.
Before the exercise, the crew sat down and wrote out a communications plan in pain-staking detail. Then the two pilots and the two safety observers were each delegated a particular radio to monitor. That helped during the exercise, when communication hitches inevitably occurred.
The C-17 lacks the moving map displays found in fighter cockpits and command and control aircraft. That means that crews must rely on others to radio them with information on the lay of the land as they are flying into the thick of things.
“You’re trying to gather all this information that they’re saying is ahead of you, trying to paint a picture of what you’re going into,” said Pennypacker, who as co-pilot was monitoring friendly radios and communicating the aircraft’s position to the airborne warning and control system orbiting on the east part of the range.
To help alleviate the situation, the crew strapped down a laptop computer to the cockpit’s center console and suction-cupped a GPS receiver to one of the windows to give them a moving map presentation during the low-level flying.
Lt. Col. James Dignan, 512th operations deputy group commander, flew the C-130J prior to switching over to the C-17. He said the C-130J has an integrated moving map beneath the radar in the cockpit. “The best way to describe it is having the best navigator you ever had to get everything you ever wanted it, when you wanted it, without ever having to ask the question,” he said. “We have most of it right here. The moving map would be another nice piece that helps to build the situational awareness for the pilots.”
The maps are on their way, added Sheetz. “They’re working on it and we’ve seen some of the solutions they’ve proposed. They’re getting there.”
Until then, the crews will continue doing what they have been: sharing the responsibility of communications to avoid confusion in the cockpit.
“We’re lucky in this airplane, when we have a multi-person crew, we can delegate responsibilities,” said Pennypacker. The C-17 was designed to be operated by a three-person crew — two pilots and one loadmaster. In current conflicts, C-17s typically are flying with a bigger crew: three pilots and two loadmasters.
“We’ve become a little too dependent on that third pilot to help us out,” said Rueter. Loadmasters can step in, he said. For the exercise, he gave Senior Airman Kristopher Mack of the 3rd Airlift Squadron a quick tutorial on using a software program called combat tracking two, which allows crews to see each other’s locations and to communicate by text messaging on a laptop. Every aircraft in the exercise had the program up and running.
“He did a phenomenal job of keeping up with where all the other airplanes were, letting us know, reading off messages that came up over the system and helping the pilot maintain that situational awareness,” said Rueter. “The loadmaster enlisted corps is going to become more and more integral into making that happen.”
The software, made by Boeing in Chantilly, Va., has proven valuable for airdrops in Afghanistan, Rueter added. “We can’t always get a hold of the drop zone when we need to, to get a drop clearance … Combat track two gives [us] an over-the-horizon, beyond line of sight capability to be able to do a lot of neat things.”
Though airlift crews are not conducting much low-level flying in Afghanistan currently, that does not mean the training is useless. “Every ounce of training is applicable. It’s only going to make us more prepared for the future, whether that’s some other operation in Afghanistan or Iraq, or humanitarian relief,” said Rueter.
“We’re sharpening up the fangs, getting back into the things we’ve done before,” said Sheetz, who sat behind the pilots as a safety observer. “It was great to see the kids up front really get into the tactical flying, employing this airplane way beyond the airliner mentality.”
Pennypacker, a reservist who took a job with the 326th Airlift Squadron as assistant chief of tactics, appreciated the training opportunity. Until this exercise, he had never landed on a dirt runway and he plans to take the experience back to the reservists in his squadron because they don’t do it often enough.
McClintock, who is one of the senior pilots in his unit, was selected to participate because he can bring back the lessons to the younger pilots.