NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — “The drop is in 12 minutes!” shouted a crew member, struggling to be heard over the roar of the mighty C-17 Globemaster III’s four engines, each putting out approximately 40,000 pounds of thrust.
Quickly I made my way down the ladder from the flight deck and started the perilous walk towards my seat at the very end of the C-17’s massive fuselage, all the while grabbing anything possible to avoid being thrown to the ground during the pilot’s aggressive banking with thousands of dollars of Air Force camera equipment on my back.
Mercifully, I made it to my seat, flipped it down and strapped in. In 12 minutes, like clockwork, the fuselage was flooded with sunlight as the ramp lowered and the first of many parachutes attached to a formidable piece of Air Force construction equipment was thrown out the back into the blue sky beyond.
In all the commotion, I had just enough time to get my camera into position and snap off those last few shots as the massive piece of steel was ripped out of the back of the aircraft into the desert valley below. I was left in awe watching it glide down through the clouds of flare smoke to the intended drop zone wondering; “How did I get here?”
Just nine months ago, I was a brand-new high school graduate working at a Sonic Drive-In in Gilbert, Ariz. Ask anyone who knew me, and they’d tell you I was always good in school, in fact, I graduated with a 3.75 GPA at one of the highest-rated schools in Arizona.
But I already knew that college wasn’t for me; the military was all I really wanted.
I was off to basic military training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Sept. 25, 2012, where I was “introduced” to my new life; starting from the bottom to learn the ins and outs of military life. Both of my instructors were staff sergeants, so it’s funny for me looking back to a time when a person with four stripes was intimidating beyond approach, any officer was even scarier and a general was a myth.
I was assigned a 3N0X5A Air Force Specialty Code, and suddenly I was an Air Force photojournalist expected to show the faces and tell the story of the Air Force; a formidable task for a fresh high school graduate who’s been a part of it for less than six months and remains admittedly unaware of most of its workings.
Fast forward just six months, and I’m packing my camera bag full of water and beef jerky in preparation for what’s sure to be the high point of my career thus far; a day onboard a C-17 flying through a simulated combat environment.
Upon arrival at my assigned aircraft, I was able to observe the last checks and inspections on the cargo that was to be delivered, a massive 820th RED HORSE backhoe. Parachutes of various sizes and innumerable cords, ties and hooks adorned the massive piece of equipment; any moving parts were packed tightly in place. This thing was in for a rough ride, and the hours of meticulous rigging and packing were a clear indication of its value to warfighters on the ground.
I sat down and checked my equipment, cleaning lenses and adjusting camera settings as I awaited takeoff. I remember pulling out my phone and checking my Facebook profile, reading about some people I knew back home still at their old jobs, doing the same old things and dealing with the same old problems.
“Where do you want to sit?” asked the aircraft’s energetic loadmaster, Staff Sgt. Steven Doubler from the 57th Weapons Squadron, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-spots around the fuselage. T Lakehurst, N.J., as he pointed to various hrilled to even have a choice in the matter, I immediately took him up on his offer to spend my day on the flight deck observing the skills and processes involved with flying such a hulking machine in a simulated-contested environment.
At the top of the ladder to the flight deck I was briefly greeted by the crew who, understandably, were quite busy checking the functionality of endless buttons, dials and displays preparing for takeoff as part of their preflight ritual.
Once in the air and en route to “enemy territory,” the group of five experienced pilots took the opportunity to really teach me the ins and outs of the day’s mission. My questions and observations were met with great enthusiasm by Lt. Col. Shawn Serfass, 57th Weapons Squadron director of operations, there along with Brig. Gen. Charles Moore, 57th Wing commander, to oversee and evaluate all aspects of the exercise from the best seat in the house; the formation lead C-17.
Talking with Serfass it became immediately clear how passionate and enthusiastic he was about the exercise and the air combat mission as a whole. He showed me a variety of what he simply called “products,” that were really quite complex graphs and maps developed by U.S. Air Force Weapons School planners that choreographed every aspect of the mission. Who, what, when, where, and what if; all down to the minute.
“This is an example of how the mission would go in a perfect world,” Serfass said with maps in hand gesturing towards our pilot, Capt. Matthew Purcell, a 57th Weapons Squadron USAFWC student.
He went on to explain in depth what makes a USAFWS graduate uniquely qualified versus those Airmen who haven’t had the opportunity to attend. He said the sophisticated planning is vital, but pilots need to be trusted to make experienced and educated decisions if things go wrong.
“What if somebody’s a few minutes late? What if we miss the drop zone? What if we lose an aircraft?,” Serfass listed just a few aspects of the plan that could easily go awry.
“The air war has started,” said Maj. Nate Hagerman, aircraft commander, grinning in his seat behind the co-pilot. “Friendly” fighters had crossed into the Nevada Test and Training Range and were engaging with “enemy” aggressor aircraft and simulated surface-to-air missile sites in order to lighten the resistance for the cargo aircraft transporting equipment and paratroopers. Pilots from the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons, flying F-15C Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons bearing aggressive foreign paint schemes, are experts in adversary tactics and certainly wouldn’t make it easy.
Eventually, the formation of 13 C-17s was cleared to converge on the drop zone; it was time.
I watched the numbers on the altimeter in the pilot’s heads-up display decrease at an alarming rate and grabbed a solid piece of railing as Capt. Purcell threw our aircraft into a plunge between the mountains towards the desert floor — 1,500 feet, 1,200 feet, 900 feet, 600 feet; the numbers kept falling.
“Why are we flying so low?” I turned to my right and asked Serfass, who was also bracing himself against the aggressive pitches and dives over and between mountains.
“It’s the radar!” he said excitedly, turning to me and pulling off one side of his headset. “We need to stay low so we don’t get picked up. Just be careful and hold onto something, you’ll get a good leg work out!”
I laughed and turned my head back towards the cockpit widow, where Purcell had us sideways yet again, bobbing up and down in his seat and bending his neck checking all his sightlines and expertly maneuvering into position for the drop.
In that moment I remember thinking to myself, “so this is what it’s like.” I remember thinking about all the dedicated pilots who flew and continue to fly real missions like this every day. Missions infinitely more perilous than the relatively controlled exercise I was sent to document that day. And as I, a humble airman first class in a cramped cockpit with weapons officers ranging from captain all the way to brigadier general, sat back and observed the focus and attention to detail put on display by the aircrew, it was blatantly apparent to me why the United States has the best Air Force in the world.
“The drop is in 12 minutes!” shouted a crew member, struggling to be heard over the roar of the mighty C-17 Globemaster III’s four engines, each putting out approximately 40,000 pounds of thrust.