A C-23 Sherpa aircraft sits on the tarmac while the crew readies
the plane for it's next mission.
It sits like a big green bumble bee on the pavement, and you ask yourself,
"Can this thing really fly?"
Like the bumblebee, the Army's C-23 Sherpa airplane certainly looks
like it would defy logic and gravity if it did fly. With its stubby
wings, bloated body and twin tails, this small but able cargo aircraft
can not only fly, but excels in the role of intra theater transport
of cargo and personnel.
"It's a great little plane," said Staff Sgt. Edward McKenna III, crew
chief for one of the Sherpas of I Company, 185th Aviation Battalion
stationed at Ali Al Salem Airbase.
The C-23 can be configured to haul cargo or personnel. It can easily
handle twenty people or three pallets of cargo, said the Mississippi
native McKenna. The plane may be slow, but it can reach most distant
airfields without a fuel problem. Its appetite for fuel is much less
than the CH-47 Chinook medium-lift helicopter. Because of this, it's
economical to fly the Sherpa when speed is not essential.
"We fly almost everyday to somewhere in the theater." An air crew
gets at least three missions a week since the aircraft was brought
into Kuwait back in June, and we fly anywhere in the theater except
Baghdad, added McKenna.
"We tried flying into Baghdad once, but we're just too slow for the
threat." The plane got shot at several times before it got onto the
ground. So we stay away from high threat areas and use other tactics
to stay safe, said McKenna.
This day's mission was not into Baghdad, but further north into Kirkuk
as part of a three-plane convoy ferrying school supplies for a civil
affairs program in the 173rd Infantry Brigade. Each plane was loaded
with two pallets of school supply materials.
Staff Sgt. Edward McKenna III unloads school supplies from the
C-23 Sherpa by hand.
"We have everything from crayons to glue sticks," said Staff Sgt.
Steve Silva, the second crew chief on the flight.
Silva, a National Guard Soldier from California, has been flying C-23's
since 1998. The mission to Kirkuk was a regular part of Silva's routine,
and he guided the "Sherpa rookie" passengers through what to expect
during the 2 ½ hour flight.
"We're not pressurized, so when we climb to above 14,000 feet, you
may get a headache if you don't use the oxygen masks," instructed
Silva. And, because the back door doesn't seal, the cargo-passenger
area will get pretty cold during the trip.
Silva further pointed out the creature comforts of the aircraft that
include a not-so-gender-friendly tube for bladder relief in-flight.
No meals would be served today and the in-flight movie would be the
Iraqi countryside from 14,000 feet as seen out the many large windows
on the aircraft.
Despite its ungainly appearance and awkward size, the C-23 provides
a relatively stable ride. The Sherpa floats like a butterfly with
its smooth flight. Smooth until descending for the landing, anyway.
Then the plane stings like a bee.
"We will be above 14,000 to give us protection from small arms fire,"
said Silva. "But when we start to descend for landing, we will drop
at a rate of about 2,000 feet per minute. It's a fast drop and your
ears may hurt."
As the plane approached Kirkuk Air Field, it started a steep dive
until it was seemingly just above the treetops and houses. At less
than a thousand feet, faces of children and men tending sheep could
clearly be seen as they looked skyward at this flying marvel. A smooth
landing, a quick refuel and off-load of supplies, and the green bumble
bee was ready to fly again.
Staff Sgt. Nat Orme sits with the cargo in C-23 awaiting take-off.
As the Army's cargo aircraft, the C-23 Sherpa is dwarfed by its larger
cousins of the Air Force.
"The Sherpa holds about one-eighth the cargo of a C-130," noted Silva.
And with its wings removed, the plane would probably fit into the
belly of the C-17. But that's not how the C-23 got into theater.
"It was flown here." The company is made up of detachments from Missouri,
California, Mississippi and Connecticut and they rallied the planes
to a central location in the states. Then every aircraft was flown
from the states to Kuwait with stops in Canada, Newfoundland, Iceland,
Scotland, Germany, Italy, and Israel. Then over Iraq and into Kuwait.
It took them nine days to get here, said a proud Silva.
"Nine long days," added McKenna.
Nine days to arrive and nine months in action have proven this bumblebee
ready for flight.