CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan — A weasel is characterized by its tenacity, persistence and keen senses. It is an animal also known for its ability to react quickly in any given situation. An airlift squadron at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, shares these characteristics.
Airmen of the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron encompass the characteristics of their mascot, and the loadmasters who work there are key to the mission’s “can do” and “ready to go” attitude.
“We’re the lifeline connecting all the different bases and forward operating bases together,” said Lt. Col. Daryl Smith, the 774th EAS commander. “Our loadmasters are really the business end of the C-130 (Hercules). We never stop and we always have airplanes moving around.”
In what can often become 12-16 hour days, a loadmaster’s job doesn’t end as soon as an aircraft is loaded.
“We are responsible for everything besides physically flying the plane,” said Tech. Sgt. John Beal, a 774th EAS loadmaster. “Most of our work is done on the ground, loading and verifying cargo by making sure any kind of weight limits, hazardous material limits or compatibility limits are met.”
While in the air, loadmasters also act as additional sets of eyes for the pilot, watching for malfunction indicators, balancing fuel levels and even scanning for threats on the ground.
“We are able to get troops and their gear, cargo or supplies to the hard to reach locations that no other cargo plane can,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Demik, a 744th EAS loadmaster. “Stateside, a loadmaster’s work mostly consists of training. Out here, we are able to apply our training into real world flights.”
While other airframes, such as the C-17 Globemaster III, may have more cargo space, the C-130J utilized by the airlift squadron here is the perfect fit for the mission.
“I consider the C-130 the pickup truck of the Air Force,” Smith said. “A C-17 is better for oversized cargo, but they require a much bigger footprint.”
Using its aft loading ramp and door, the C-130 can accommodate a wide variety of cargo, everything from utility helicopters and six-wheeled armored vehicles to standard palletized cargo and military personnel. In an aerial delivery role, it can airdrop loads up to 42,000 pounds or use its high-flotation landing gear to land and deliver cargo on rough, dirt strips.
Additionally, the C-130 can be rapidly reconfigured for the various types of cargo such as palletized equipment, floor-loaded material, airdrop platforms, container delivery system bundles, vehicles and personnel, or aeromedical evacuation.
“In any kind of operation, it feels kind of like we’re the shock absorbers,” Smith said. “If something gets to the plane late, we have to make sure it still gets to where it needs to be at the right time. Sometimes it comes to us to fix problems at that moment.”
That problem can even be how to get service members out of trouble.
“The thing I love most about being a loadmaster is pulling troops out of hostile locations,” said Staff Sgt. Justin King, a 744th EAS loadmaster. “There is nothing better than knowing we are the ‘freedom bird’ for them.”
Fixing problems on the fly is just one more area of expertise of 744th EAS Airmen.
“There are really two reasons I love being a loadmaster,” Demik said. “One is being part of a crew and the camaraderie that comes with accomplishing things as a team. Second, is the fact that we are able deliver critical items and supplies to people in need. It is very satisfying to be a part team that, together, can accomplish anything.”