On one sortie they may be airdropping food, ammo and fuel to Special Operations troops at a remote forward operating base.
On the next, they might transport troops to or from an austere location, move prisoners to a secure facility, provide airlift to Afghan National Army allies, perform aeromedical evacuation, or transport distinguished visitors -- completing many of these tasks on the same day.
For aircrews with the 772nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron here, every day brings a unique and challenging mission.
"Not only do our aircrews have to be good pilots and loadmasters, they have to do logistics planning, personnel work, perform security detail on flights, and even serve as a command and control node for those different folks that are flying on the plane with them," said Maj. Sean Callahan, director of operations for the 772nd EAS.
Callahan and approximately 150 other Airmen in the squadron are deployed here from Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas. In addition to operators and the maintainers that keep the C-130J Super Hercules flying, the 772nd EAS also has aviation resource management personnel, intelligence analysts, tacticians, aircrew flight equipment technicians and medical professionals.
The squadron averages 50 sorties a day, shared between seven crews. And tremendous behind-the-scenes coordination is required to execute their missions.
Known informally as the "Gun Runners," the 772nd EAS performs the large majority of airdrop missions in theater, averaging about two airdrop missions per day. The C-130 crews fly in diverse operating environments, from high-altitude airdrops in an unpressurized airplane at 20,000 feet to flying passengers to Kyrgyzstan, the United Arab Emirates, or Pakistan, or landing on a small dirt airstrip in the middle of the desert.
Most airdrop missions utilize the conventional Container Delivery System, which can deliver more than 30,000 pounds of supplies to troops on the ground. Another method used less frequently is the Low-Cost, Low-Altitude system which provides a very precise and inexpensive method for resupply.
One mission in November brought a fresh set of challenges to one C-130J crew.
The crew was made up of Capt. Russell Neice, pilot and aircraft commander; 1st Lt. Rob Consiglio, copilot; and the loadmasters, Senior Airmen Dan Simonsen and Marcus Wright. On this mission, the crew would perform two airdrops, one conventional and one at low altitude. The latter can be especially challenging for the crew, as they approach the drop zone flying at 300 feet above the ground over uneven terrain.
In the back of the plane, the loadmasters donned their harnesses and secured the straps that hooked up to the floor of the aircraft. As they opened the ramp, the sound of the wind rushed in and the brown desert and low, jagged mountains of southwest Afghanistan appeared below. After the pilots gave a countdown, the loadmasters gave a shove to the 600-lb bundles, which slid out the back with their parachutes opening up, catching the wind with a great "whoosh."
"I think the most rewarding missions we do are airdrop," Callahan said. "We fly airdrop missions because Soldiers on the ground need critical supplies that can't be delivered using more conventional methods. Airdrop missions require a combination of precision flying, solid teamwork between the pilots and the loadmasters, good communication between the ground party and the aircrew, and properly rigged parachutes and bundles -- and often performed in situations where the bad guys are trying to shoot us."
This was the second LCLA airdrop for Neice, who is on his second deployment to Kandahar and his first as an aircraft commander.
"Flying here as an aircraft commander is a lot different than flying as a copilot," he said. "There are more things you have to take into consideration. Every time we land in a new place, there could be a change in the mission."
One of the most memorable experiences for him was having the chance to take one of his friends from Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, to Manas, Kyrgyzstan, for redeployment, he said.
Camaraderie that's the best thing about the deployment, the crewmembers said.
With the wide variety of missions flown across the entire theater, tactical airlift missions provide a very intimate perspective of the overall campaign.
"The things we do touch everybody in a personal way on every single sortie," Callahan said. "It's very rewarding to know our efforts make such a difference."
Article by Capt. Tristan Hinderliter, 451st Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs