Thursday, August 2, 2007

TOP STORY >>Battling complacency: Into stop Balad

By Maj. Shawn Fisher
Air Mobility Command Flight Safety

No one really looks forward to a deployment and I was no exception. It had been several years since my last deployment considering I was previously assigned to AETC as an instructor at the C-130 FTU. When I came to the AMC Safety staff, I knew a trip to the AOR in whatever form would be coming my way sooner rather than later. In anticipation of this, I tried to ensure all my mobility requirements were current ... this is no small feat for a staff officer.

I am glad I made the effort, because within less than a year of arriving at Scott AFB, I found myself completing checklists and making final preparations to travel to Iraq. But I consider myself one of the lucky ones. This was no standard deployment.
Because all of us on the safety staff are current flyers, I was given the opportunity to fly as a primary member of a C-130 aircrew.

I joined the 777th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron based at Balad Air Base, Iraq, and within a few days I was flying missions with my new crew. It took only a few flights to adjust to the theater of operations, and in less than two weeks, I pretty much had the hang of it. This was great for me as I had just the right amount of time to become proficient with and experience all of the missions the unit performs before returning back to the States. However, for those individuals on their second, third or fourth deployment, apathy, complacency, possibly even boredom, can become a significant challenge.

For those not familiar with C-130 unit deployments, these personnel have a grueling schedule with no end in sight. After spending 120 days or more in theater, they return home for three or four months before returning again to the desert for another 120-day rotation. Despite this extreme operational tempo, the motivation and dedication in the unit is remarkable and I was truly impressed.

Although I flew every other day during my time with the “Triple Seven” I thankfully did not experience any “There I Was” stories while deployed — a testament to the professionalism of my crew.

Although I did not have any abnormal excitement, I did participate in all the various missions the 777th performs. Probably the most common mission flown by C-130s in Operation Iraqi Freedom is hauling personnel and cargo. There was a great degree of satisfaction flying these airland missions, knowing we were curtailing the number of convoys on the roads in Iraq and, in effect, saving a lot of lives of our fellow servicemembers.

The airland missions flown by the 777 EAS typically consist of many flights of relatively short duration between airfields throughout the country. Though seemingly simple, they are fairly demanding. The unpredictable tactical environment, hectic communications and short flight durations all combine to make the mission a challenge.

After a full 12-hour tactical crew day the total flight time may only be three or four hours. This is after transiting six or more airfields with flight times as short as 15 or 20 minutes. This short flight time, combined with the historic performance of the C-130, forces crews to operate at lower altitudes, increasing their exposure to the small arms and MANPAD threats.
Additionally, the shorter flights require aircrews to accomplish coordination and checklist items in less time, so the flight deck is a very busy place. Effective CRM among the hard crews is indispensable and makes it all possible.

Another common mission performed by the 777th EAS is supporting the Joint Airborne Battle Staff. Highlighted in a recent Air Force online article, the JABS is a joint-service communications unit whose personnel listen in on convoy operations on the ground and provide assistance to them as needed.

The 777th crews ferry the JABS personnel and their equipment into position in the skies over Iraq and keep them on-station for several hours at a time.

The JABS acts as a go-between, providing critical communications relay when convoys come under attack and need support or cannot establish contact with forward operating bases or other units on the ground.

They have been described as “911 operators at 20,000 feet.” Though orbiting for hours at a time may not seem exciting the mission is very rewarding nonetheless.

Balad is an interesting place and though I’ve only been home a week, I miss it a little. Of course, any time I say that out loud, I typically receive a response along the lines of, “Well, we can always send you back.” You’d have to agree, nothing says “home” like being surrounded by 10-foot concrete barriers and a mountain of sandbags...or when smoke from the base burn pit mixes with the unmistakable bouquet emanating from the portajohns to welcome you back after every flight.

But, I didn’t have to cook for myself and I didn’t have much laundry since I was sporting the stylish Air Force PT gear every-where I went when I wasn’t flying. One thing still troubles me though.

You may think I’m kidding, but I haven’t been able to sleep as well at home as I did there at Balad. I guess I need the constant din of F-16s in full afterburner in harmony with the “incoming mortar” alarm siren to lull me to sleep at night! Okay, maybe I can survive back home for a little while anyway.

In all honesty, I look back on my deployment fondly. Initially, I thought I would be counting down the days to leave as soon as I arrived. I had the opportunity to be a crew dog in combat (with no additional duties!) and when it was time to go I actually found myself regretting that I had to leave Balad behind.

I was part of a great crew and an awesome squadron performing a mission that is saving American and Iraqi lives, and I actually look forward to going back!


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