KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- A joint-coalition team led by the 451st Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron peers into a dark, moonless sky in preparation for a nighttime helicopter sling load mission.
All of their other senses are heightened to compensate for the reduced visibility as a UH-60 Black Hawk flown by Soldiers of the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade approaches the site. Soon, the team is immersed in the smell of burned JP-8 fuel, the pressure of the rotor wash against their skin and the repetitive whirring sound of the rotor blades as they slice through the air.
All the while, dots of light marking the touch-down points struggle to disclose themselves through the cloak of darkness that envelops the landing zone. While this Hollywood-style scenario could be the backdrop for an action movie, for the second time in as many months, 51 servicemembers from the Department of Defense and NATO combined to execute a historic aviation milestone for military operations in southern Afghanistan June 1.
Coming on the heels of a successful daytime sling load mission April 21, the 451st ELRS increased their external cargo delivery expertise by conducting a similar operation at night. The coordinated air and ground teams executed 42 sorties to move more than 68,400 pounds of equipment and 44 personnel by air.
Capt. Christopher Kaighen, 451st ELRS aerial port flight commander and deployed from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., explained the importance of the training. He noted that ground convoys between camps can fall victim to improvised explosive devices, and airlift to combat outposts are restricted to the runways peppered around the area of responsibility. "Now we have mastered transporting cargo and personnel over the threat of improvised explosive devices, and can deliver it with pinpoint accuracy to almost any location in this war-torn nation using helicopters - day or night," Kaighen said. "That's a pretty significant achievement for any unit." He continued, "As professional logisticians, we must understand how to use diverse, joint resources to benefit our military operations. My aerial porters work with NATO every day to transport cargo using a variety of fixed-wing aircraft. Now we've added helicopters and sling loads to our skillset. As a smaller military, we are more interdependent than ever, and this capability is another tool in our toolbox to ensure mission success, especially as we support the retrograde efforts to move equipment out of remote [forward operating bases]." Sgt. 1st Class Chad Rutan, 603rd Aviation Support Battalion Headquarters and Service Company arrival/departure airfield control group noncommissioned officer in charge, served as the mission's lead pathfinder and ensured the smooth integration and synchronization of the air and ground forces. "The mission last night went very well. The Airmen and NATO troops now understand what capabilities are available, and how to properly use them to execute their operations," Rutan said. "I also think it was good for the leadership, on both sides, to work closely and understand what capabilities each one can bring to ensure success in future joint operations." Tech. Sgt. Sean R. Buck, 451st Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron F-16 flightline expediter and deployed from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, compared his experience as a unit deployment manager with the sling load mission. "I saw the cargo planning and movement come to fruition in a completely different way than I've ever done it before," Buck said. "Rather than using a heavy airframe to move the cargo, the sling load method was expedient, had less logistics and was exhilarating!" Senior Airman Alison K. Bowker, 451st ELRS aerial port journeyman deployed from Joint Base Charleston, S. C., participated as both a tactical passenger and as a hook-up person. She remarked that Kandahar Airfield is very different from her homestation, "I'm completely comfortable around large aircraft because I'm on the flightline and see them every day. But KAF is different because we have rotary wing aircraft and see a lot of helicopters. So to actually fly on one is super fun!"
She was impressed by the pre-flight preparation and flawless execution of the mission. She said, "The pathfinders had it down pat. They explained all of the risks up front, and what everyone had to do to stay safe. It's good to see that the leadership knows what's going on, and it is reassuring to know that we'll be taken care of before even going near the aircraft." Bowker's job normally has her on the flightline, moving and securing cargo onto stationary, fixed-wing aircraft, so the sling load exercise presented a different challenge for her and the other aerial porters involved. "The force of the rotor wash was amazing. I didn't expect it to be that forceful," she said. "When you are getting ready for the hook-up, the wind gets really forceful as the helicopter slowly approaches. But right as it's hovering over you, it's like being in the eye of the storm. It's calm, you do your job to hook-up, and then go to your safety zone." The sling load missions served to prepare Airmen to support joint forces, and expose the Airmen to different methods of achieving the same effect, a valuable skill to have. "Being exposed to things outside my normal every day 'box' broadens the knowledge and capability of what aerial porters can do. I'm used to putting pallets inside an airplane, not attaching them to the bottom of an aircraft," Bowker said. "On a personal level, I like being able to say that I've been through a sling load, and that I know what's involved and what to expect. And when the opportunity presents itself again, I know that I'm capable of doing it in the future."