DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- Even with all the advancements mankind has made, storms like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy have proven just how vulnerable we can be to the wrath of Mother Nature. Advanced and accurate information about the path of these storms can be the difference between life and death.
Unfortunately, the information available to meteorologists to track storms in North America has been limited. NASA has been working to combat this problem by creating the Global Precipitation Measurement Satellite. A major hurdle in the process was transporting the 57,000 pound satellite and its container from the United States to where it will be launched in Japan.
A C-5M Super Galaxy aircrew from the 512th Airlift Wing here delivered the state of the art satellite Nov. 24, to Kitakyushu Airport in Japan.
Jean Manall, a NASA project support transportation manager, said it was no easy task, but the Air Force Reserve Airmen performed admirably.
"Everything was great, I don't have a bad thing to say about the great work these professionals did to make this mission happen," she said. "Every last one of them down to the newest Airman is highly capable."
Manall is no stranger to the Air Force having served 25 years herself and retiring as a chief master sergeant. She said she enjoys the opportunity to work with the Air Force and was glad that leadership accepted the mission.
The crew was composed of pilots, flight engineers and loadmasters from the 709th Airlift Squadron and crew chiefs from the 512th Maintenance Group.
Master Sgt. Jeremy Lee, a 709th AS loadmaster, was a member of two previous test loads to ensure the C-5M was up to the task.
"The weight combined with the size was going to present some challenges," Lee said. "My biggest concern was the top clearance. At some points during the load there would be only be about an inch of clearance. We had to take it slow to ensure we didn't damage the equipment or the aircraft."
With 5,600 flight hours as a loadmaster, Lee's experience was vital to the loading of the satellite Nov. 20, at Joint Base Andrews, Md. The delicate operation took eight hours as the satellite was winched inch-by-inch slowly into the aircraft.
Loadmasters worked hand-in-hand with NASA engineers during the load. Even though the two groups used different terminology, it didn't take long for them to get on the same sheet of music, Lee said. Once the satellite was in place in the cargo compartment, Airmen and engineers ensured it was properly secured.
Lee said if the satellite would have broken loose it would have been a catastrophic event for the aircraft and the aircrew.
This mission called for a steady hand at the controls during flight, said Capt. Todd Mullen, a 709th AS pilot and the aircraft commander for the mission.
"The delicacy of the cargo required stable flying and very smooth landings," he said. "It was definitely one of the more unique missions I have ever been a part of."
According to NASA officials, the Global Precipitation Measurement, or GPM, mission is an international network of satellites that provide the next-generation global observations of rain and snow. Building upon the success of the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, the GPM concept centers on the deployment of a core satellite carrying an advanced radar/radiometer system to measure precipitation from space and serve as a reference standard to unify precipitation measurements from a constellation of research and operational satellites. Through improved measurements of precipitation globally, the mission will help to advance our understanding of Earth's water and energy cycle and improve forecasting of extreme events that cause natural hazards and disasters.
In addition to being heavy and large, the satellite also required the aircraft to be powered at all times, because the cargo compartment had to be climate controlled.
After being diverted to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, the flying crew chiefs were required to stay with the aircraft for 12-hour shifts to keep the aircraft powered while the mission was delayed two days due to weather.
Senior Airman Kristy Foley, a 512th MXG crew chief, said the extra hours were hard, but worth it in the end.
"I just have the mindset of doing whatever needs to be done to complete the mission," she said. "This was an interesting mission for everyone involved because of the extra communication needed with the NASA personnel and the extra hours everybody put in."
It was the first mission for Senior Airman Travis Shea, a 709th Airlift Squadron loadmaster student. He said it was a great way to start off his career as a loadmaster.
"It was a great learning opportunity and just an awesome experience," he said. "That was interesting to watch, but I was more interested in watching the loadmasters and learning as much as I could. It just reinforced to me that I picked the right unit to join."
Lee said the one variable that worried him was the flightline in Japan and he was relieved when there were no issues unloading the satellite.
"I was probably happier than the NASA people when we safely unloaded," he said. "I am really proud of our team and I think we worked well together and overcame a lot of obstacles."
The satellite is scheduled to be launched in late February.