NOVEMBER 2, 2016, ROYAL AIR FORCE MILDENHALL, England (AFNS) – In early 2016, an MC-130J Commando II, along with its five-man crew, navigated the air above a heavily populated area of Afghanistan during daylight hours. Their orders were to deliver a resupply of ammunition and water to troops engaged with enemy forces. Inbound to the drop zone, their mission was interrupted by heavy fire from the ground.
With enemy rounds visible within 10 feet of the ramp, the loadmasters took cover and manually cut the release gate. After the drop, the pilot conducted a rapid climb and maneuvered out of the weapon engagement zone. Although the entire encounter lasted approximately 90 seconds and resulted in a medium-caliber entry hole in the tail section and multiple holes through the rudder of the aircraft, the airdrop was successful.
This story, although specific to Staff Sgts. Joshua Call and Gary Bjerke, both 67th Special Operations Squadron MC-130J instructor loadmasters, is not all that uncommon to members of their profession. Danger aside, the skill and competency of which they perform their duties during these stressful events is the real point of pride.
“You need to have confidence in your job and know how to perform your job in stressful situations. If the rest of the crew isn’t confident in you, that’s a failed link in the chain,” Bjerke said. “If we don’t do this right and don’t have attention to detail, something is going to damage the aircraft, potentially bring the aircraft down or cause a bad airdrop.”
For Staff Sgt. Samuel Haydon, a 67th SOS instructor loadmaster, his ability to perform effectively during a leaflet airdrop that came under fire is directly relatable to realistic training he receives at his home station.
“The key to remember here is how our consistent, realistic and practical home station training kicked in immediately when a real life-threatening scenario arose,” Haydon said. “Everything we’ve been taught and learned through ground training, simulations and in-flight practicing became instinct in a time of true danger.”
Being able to react professionally under pressure is not only something these Airmen are trained to do, it’s a necessity.
Aside from the training and skill needed to perform during these types of events, the key to being a successful MC-130J loadmaster starts before the aircraft even leaves the ground.
“Prior to loading, we’re going to inspect the load and ensure it is safe to drop and safe to put on the aircraft. Once we inspect, we load that piece of equipment, position it to ensure the weight and balance (are) good and then start rigging procedures,” Bjerke said. “The rigging procedures are pretty extensive, and that’s where loadmasters pride themselves.”
Loadmasters are essential in many areas, from performing cargo and personnel airdrops to helicopter aerial refueling and supervising forward arming refueling point operations.
“My role on the MC-130J is to supervise the upload and download of cargo onto the aircraft, conduct airdrops, infiltration/exfiltration, FARP, helicopter aerial refueling and assist, should any emergency procedures arise in flight,” Bjerke said. “Operationally, most of this is done at night.”
Attention to detail, confidence, patience, maturity and the ability to multitask are just a few of the characteristics these instructor loadmasters stated were essential to performing their job safely and effectively.
“Sometimes there’s chaos in the back of an aircraft — whether it be cargo or people — and you’re trying to load things due to weight and balance purposes,” Call said. “If there were any sort of mistakes, it could create unstable flight characteristics for the pilots. Aircrew, passengers, troops we’re supporting on the ground — we have a lot of lives in our hands.”
Although some personality traits are characteristic of those seeking to be loadmasters, much of what made these instructors who they are falls to experience, mentorship and consistent training.
“I’ve really enjoyed this job and feel it has really grown me as a person and as an Airman,” Haydon said. “It’s made me more confident, more assertive, and I think the multitasking piece has also been huge, teaching me how to work multiple issues and problems at one time.”
Regardless of the challenges associated with their profession, being an MC-130J loadmaster is a job that these Airmen love.
“There is no question, being a loadmaster has given me the opportunity to travel to amazing places and see parts of the world I never would have before – some safe, some not, some fun, some difficult,” Haydon said. “But, just being able to meet new people, experience new places and new cultures has been an incredible opportunity in my career. It’s been a great mix of challenges, mentally and physically.”