KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- A large mechanical whir fills the back of the C-130J Super Hercules as the back ramp doors begin to open slowly like a pair of iron jaws. Chief Master Sgt. Troy Peltier, a loadmaster with the 815th Airlift Squadron here, turns to the 25 paratroopers from the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment as they peer into the dark and signals for them to get ready to plunge into the void of an October night.
A dim green glow fills the cargo bay of the C-130J. All white light sources have been switched to a type of lighting that helps the paratrooper's eyes adjust to the night as they prepare to jump. Screams of commands like, "Stand up, hook up," fill the bay as the first load of paratroopers hook their parachute equipment to a long cable called a static line, which will pull their parachute from their packs when they exit the aircraft. With the doors open, the signal to go is announced, and without hesitation, the first six men step off the end of the ramp one by one.
At 1,250 feet, it will take a handful of seconds for the troops to reach the ground as they jump at 150 mph. The Oct. 29 jump is a small part of a large-scale, two-week training exercise called Operation Southern Strike 15, which is taking place over most of south Mississippi and involves more than 50 separate military units.
According to Army 1st Sgt. Shawn Ludwig, a paratrooper with the 160th SOAR headquartered at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, only about six paratroopers could jump at one time due to the size of the drop zone so the plane made several passes to drop all 25 soldiers on target safely. Making repeated passes over the same area can be a dangerous assignment for aircrew in an active combat zone.
According to the exercise scenario, the 815th AS's task was to take the 160th SOAR paratroopers to a specific location over the fictitious country of the People's Bayou Republic, which in reality is the Camp Shelby, National Guard Training Center, to establish and secure a forward arming and refueling point for helicopters to land and fill their fuel tanks during one of the operation's many scenarios.
"This is great practice," Ludwig said. "Any time you jump at night, it refines your capabilities and is extremely worthwhile."
The 160th SOAR is an Army special operations unit also known as the Night Stalkers. They provide helicopter aviation support for general purpose forces and special operations forces. The regiment's missions include attack, assault and reconnaissance, and usually are conducted at night, high speeds, low altitudes and on short notice.
Maj. William Miller, the 815th AS aircraft commander, said the mission was a success, and all 25 special-forces paratroopers exited the C-130J and were tactically inserted into the battlefield on time and on target.
The 815th AS mission is to support theater commanders with the ability to resupply the forces, provide airlift requirements within the combat zone or forward areas and provide aeromedical evacuation. The unit performs precision air drop of supplies and paratroopers in all weather conditions either day or night and can perform day or night airlift capabilities in hostile areas.
"You can't measure success [in training] by how things went," Miller said. "Success, in my opinion, is measured on what you learn, and how you are able to implement what you learn from a training mission."
The purpose for Operation Southern Strike is to test the participating active-duty Army and Air Force service members, as well as the Army and Air National Guard and Reserve unit's ability to provide cost effective and realistic combat training in a joint and multinational environment.
This exercise provides units with practice in close air support, en-route casualty care, combat search and rescue, special operations forces and suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses in a counter-insurgency scenario.
The goal of the exercise is to provide training opportunities to maintain top combat readiness in all assigned unit tasking code specialties, said Col. Craig Ziemba, the Operation Southern Strike exercise director with the Mississippi Air National Guard Joint Forces Headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi.
The 815th AS also supported the exercise by flying an aeromedical evacuation mission Oct. 30 to test the en-route patient care methods and technology on the battlefield by transforming their C-130J into a flying hospital. While the 815th AS crew handled their part of the mission of flying injured troops to a medical staging area, the medical personnel in the back of the plane simulated life-saving techniques used in areas of operation like Afghanistan.
"This was a great opportunity to demonstrate and test our capability," said Lt. Col. Robert Stanton, the 403rd Operations Group deputy commander.
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