With a sudden jolt I awoke and for a moment forgot where I was. My eyes adjusted to the darkness; red webbed seating, bodies thrown around, wires and bare metal walls, and a hollow drone of the sound of a propeller engine. Then I remembered I was aboard a California Air National Guard C-130J on my way to Homestead AFB in FL.
24 hours prior I was approaching the main gate of the 146th Airlift Wing based in southern California. I was joining the men and women of the 146th as they supported the 12th Air Force and Air Forces Southern Operation Southern Partner by airlifting more then 60 Airmen from across the Air Force to seven Caribbean and Latin American nations. The Twelfth Air Force (Air Forces Southern) led event is aimed at providing intensive, periodic subject matter exchanges with partner nation Air Forces in the US Southern Command area of focus. And I was going to join them on this dramatic mission.
As I was escorted through the gate to the 146th Aerial Port, I couldn’t help but get excited. Warm beaches, amazing weather, amazing people, and an opportunity to witness first hand the Air Force’s efforts to strengthen partnerships with the countries to our south. It was going to be quite an experience. But before all that could happen, we had to get there first. So it was time to get processed, bags checked in, and travel orders verified. The folks at the 146th Aerial Port made it all happen. And for those keeping track, the weight of myself and my carry on bags was 236lbs. Cameras, laptops, books, and a lot of trail mix.
The 146th AW accomplishes many missions, including supporting our troops overseas during Operation Joint Enterprise, and helping fight numerous forest fires using the C-130J. And along those lines, they were providing the aircraft and experienced aircrew to fly Airmen and cargo to the various countries over the next 16 days in support of Operation Southern Partner.
At 10:00am, with all the gear loaded, PRTNR09 (our callsign during the trip) took off to our first stop, Davis Monthan AFB, AZ. The crew was kind enough to allow me to sit in the jumpseat for the flight.
It really is amazing to see this latest version of the C-130 and its all glass cockpit. Having had a few “adventurous” flights in older model C-130’s, the pilots, crew chief, and loadmasters made this my most comfortable flight. Of course being the only passenger aboard helped a lot. But this stretched C-130J would soon be loaded to max capacity with passengers and cargo.
Before I knew it, our quick flight to D-M was over and we were on approach to land.
After spending the day in sunny Tucson, the real adventure was about to begin. I met the aircrew at 3:30am and went out to get the plane ready for the cargo and 20 passengers before we departed at 5am for our next stop, Homestead Air Reserve Base.
With the sun still hiding over the horizon, we waited to board the aircraft while it was being loaded. With the large amount of cargo being loaded, the Loadmasters carefully positioned each pallet and still keep the aircraft’s center of gravity within limits.
But they had their calculations down to an art and before we knew it we were scrambling for a seat aboard the Hercules. Our home for the next 2 weeks, I came to the dramatic conclusion that this was going to be very interesting with this many people and this much cargo. This wasn’t your average commercial airliner. There are no ‘seats’ that recline and have a tray table in front of you, nor flight attendants bringing you drinks. Imagine the smallest seats, tightest, cramped flight that you’ve been on and multiply it by 10. Comfort was a secondary thought when this aircraft was designed. It’s primary mission is to move cargo, be it bags, tanks, or people. And to do it all as efficiently (aka uncomfortably) possible. So the first priority once we were airborne was to be as comfortable as possible for the 5 hour flight. By ANY means necessary.
Any means! And if you are trying to imagine what it is like sitting in these red webbed seats, think of those nylon folding chairs that you take to the beach or park. No back support, no padding for your bottom, and no armrests. Then sit in that for hours and hours with a dull, but loud humming from the 4 Rolls Royce propellers spinning outside. And because of the noise, you have to wear ear plugs during the whole flight!
But I think the most creative sleeping arrangement has to go to the pararescuemen who make up the Guardian Angel weapons system. Yes, that is a hammock! And the sleeping bags have inflatable air mattress under them. Definitely first class in this plane. Think these PJ’s have done this a few times before?
And for those of you who put two and two together and are wondering about if there is a lavatory aboard, yes there is. And much like the rest of the accommodations, comfort and privacy was not the main priority. But if you have to go….
While others were sleeping, those up on the flight deck were busy flying the plane and discussing the upcoming mission over the next 2 weeks.
While the travel may be a bit hard for the average civilian, I applaud the men and women who were on board because they did not complain a bit. In fact, everyone was very excited to be on their way to participate in the upcoming mission, from the band members who will entertain local communities, to the pararescuemen who will cross train other military jumpers, to the aircrew who will fly everyone from island to island to island so this can all happen. Everyone, from across the Air Force, will work together to make this mission a tremendous success. And we will be there to cover all of the events and let you experience Operation Southern Partner through this blog. Ok, signing off for now because we have a 14 hour day tomorrow of flying aboard our C-130J!