NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNS) -- "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 toward my seat at the very end of the C-17's massive fuselage.
I grabbed anything possible to avoid being thrown to the floor
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.
12 minutes later, like
clockwork, the fuselage was flooded with sunlight as the ramp was
lowered. The first of many parachutes was attached to a formidable
piece of Air Force construction equipment prior to it being slid out
the back into the blue sky.
Senior Airman Brett Clashman takes photos
from the back of a C-17 Globemaster III during the Joint Forcible
Entry exercise on May 31, 2013 over the Nevada Test and Training
Range. During the exercise, C-17s dropped service members and heavy
equipment into simulated contested drop zones. Clashman is a 99th
Air Base Wing Public Affairs photojournalist. (U.S. Air Force photo
by Airman 1st Class Joshua Kleinholz)
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 headed for 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, and started 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. This is a
formidable task for a fresh high school graduate who's been
a part of the Air Force 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, a massive
820th RED HORSE backhoe. Parachutes of various sizes and
innumerable cords, ties and hooks adorned the massive piece
of equipment, with any moving parts 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, cleaned lenses and adjusted 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, at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst,
N.J., as he pointed to various spots around the fuselage.
Thrilled 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 were understandably quite
busy checking the functionality of endless buttons, dials
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, the 57th Weapons
Squadron director of operations, there along with Brig. Gen.
Charles Moore, the 57th Wing commander, to oversee and
evaluate all aspects of the exercise from the best seat in
the house; the formation lead C-17.
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, or USAFWS,
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 said, listing just a few aspects of the
plan that could go awry.
"The air war has started,"
said Maj. Nate Hagerman, the 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 toward 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!"
and turned my head back toward the cockpit window, 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 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.
By USAF Airman 1st Class Joshua Kleinholz
Air Force News Service
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