Delaware Air Guard five-ship C-130 aircraft formation sharpens war fighting skills

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Matwey
  • 166th Airlift Wing, Delaware ANG
Beachgoers enjoying the height of the summer during a hot and hazy day along the coastline from Ocean City, Md. to Cape Henlopen, Del. on June 7, 2008 saw an unusual sight -- or five unusual sights, if they counted correctly.

Just before 1:00 p.m. that Saturday, starting offshore at Ocean City, thousands of people along the shore saw five Delaware Air National Guard C-130 transport aircraft with fuselages painted grey appear one after the other from the south.

The aircraft were participating in a large formation C-130 flight as part of a 166th Airlift Wing training mission that began and ended in New Castle, Del. This mission, however, was larger than typical missions using one or two aircraft. The formation flew several of the unit's normal training patterns, taking the aircraft over popular summertime beach areas of Maryland and Delaware.

The five aircraft formation carrying over 30 aircrew took off from New Castle Airport at 11:00 a.m., right on time to begin the nearly 700-mile flight over four states and Md.-Del. coastal areas, including the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay, with Richmond, Va. the most southern waypoint. The three-hour flight, with an in-flight airspeed of about 250 m.p.h. (220 knots), culminated in a heavy equipment airdrop over Coyle Field in the Pine Barrens of N.J. before returning to home station in New Castle.

Most vacationers first heard the noise of the overhead engines that got louder the closer the aircraft came to shore. Looking up, adults and children saw one, then two, then a third C-130 flying overhead, appearing larger as they came closer and swung closer to shore after the aircraft flew around the Ocean City Airport. By the time the fourth and fifth aircraft appeared through the haze, most people on the beach were looking up at the aircraft. A few people appeared surprised, and others just stared with curious looks on their faces. Some pointed towards the formation.

In the hour before the formation reached Ocean City, three small aircraft had just towed banners advertising a beverage, insurance, and restaurant entity. Two summer tourists had just begun to parasail, with one person a couple hundred feet above the water and the other just getting airborne as the first military aircraft appeared. Heads turned as people near the surf realized the large aircraft were approaching.

Regular beachgoers are used to the occasional sight of single Coast Guard C-130s flying by on patrol at even lower altitudes, their red and white painted fuselage and Coast Guard insignia making a clear and common impression. But seeing five C-130 aircraft of a different color pattern turning towards the coast was something out of the ordinary.

Captain Chris Strickler, a navigator in the 166th Operations Support Flight, was the planner for the mission. As planner, he stays on the ground during the flight. He described how the five aircraft flew towards the ocean after passing over the Ocean City Airport in a nearly straight line, when the mission commander gave the command, "In-place 90 degrees left, now." Following this command all aircraft lined up parallel to the coastline before they became 'feet wet,' as the aircraft then crossed over water.

The five C-130s, roughly following each other in a staggered straight line with every other aircraft off to the side of the aircraft in front, flew nearly half-a-mile from shore and at an altitude of 500 feet over water. The aircraft stayed overhead and in view for nearly a minute before disappearing into the haze to the north. They proceeded towards Fenwick Island, then Bethany Beach, Dewey Beach, and on to Cape Henlopen.

The aircraft kept a distance of about 4,000 feet between each, which meant 16,000 feet separated the first aircraft from the fifth aircraft. "That's a pretty big distance," said Capt. Strickler, who pointed out that at 5,280 feet per mile, the 'in-trail' distance was about three miles.

The basic aircrew of 30 Airmen was supplemented with numerous evaluators and instructor aircrew on the flight. The basic aircrew includes 10 pilots, five navigators, five flight engineers and 10 loadmasters.

In addition, dozens of ground personnel from various maintenance and mission support shops in the 166th Airlift Wing prepared the aircraft, heavy equipment loads and parachute rigging needed for the airdrops.

"This mission is a large undertaking. The flight planning began weeks ago. The ground planning is a culmination of literally months of hard work by our maintenance personnel ensuring the readiness of our aircraft," said Col. Jonathan Groff, wing commander, 166th Airlift Wing. "It is an example of the peacetime training requirements our military unit must measure up to so we remain prepared to execute a variety of combat or humanitarian relief missions."

Captain Strickler described how the three-day planning process worked by the aircrew was a little unusual. "Usually, we do 'in-the-can' pre-planned tactical flying," said Capt. Strickler, with variations of SR (slow route) or IR (instrument route) flying. "This mission was different."

"This was like a mini-exercise with planning and execution and a current Intel brief," said Capt. Strickler. "We wanted to get as much training value as we could, to squeeze as much blood out of this turnip as possible," as he lifted his fist and applied pressure to a simulated turnip held in his hand.

On Day 1 of planning, the routes were selected.

One Day 2, Capt. Strickler presented his plan to a murder board of pilots and navigators who questioned everything. That process led to improvements and refinements to the plan. Also considered were the 'banner-pullers,' the small aircraft that tow advertising banners along the shore.

On Day 3, Capt. Strickler refined the plan and created final briefing charts and products for the flight. One consideration was airspace; they had to fly 2000 feet above Assateague Island National Seashore and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

Preparations were nearly complete for the actual mission the next day.

Before the flight, a data transfer module was programmed so that flight information can be loaded onto the mission computer in each aircraft in one action rather than using a point-by-point manual process. Using each module "saves 20 minutes of work, times five modules," said Capt. Strickler.

A couple days after the mission was over, the planner summed up the mission. "It was a turnkey operation," said Capt. Strickler. He deemed the flying a success as well as the airdrop portion. While over the Coyle Field N.J. drop zone aircraft airdropped 15 pound sandbags and 3,400 pound pallet loads made up of railroad ties on a standard aluminum pallet with a wooden box around the ties. The pallet loads used two big G-12E model 64-foot diameter cargo parachutes and one smaller extraction chute.

Capt. Strickler said that aircrew worked with members of the 166th Aerial Port to ask themselves "How are the five aircraft to get into position for this takeoff?", and had to tackle, he said, the nuts and bolts that were crucial to mission accomplishment. He said members had to figure how where to park the aircraft, where to taxi, and how to make the takeoff, with a lot more considerations to be addressed.

The takeoff was using a "feed-on method," said Capt. Strickler, with "aircraft taking off in 15 second increments." Planners had to make contingency plans for breaks or aborts on the runway.

The last time the unit flew a five-ship formation for normal unit training was in late 2002, but according to Capt. Strickler that mission was flown using a standard local route. The June 2008 route, however, "was not canned," said Capt. Strickler. "It was not a route flown regularly."

The lead aircraft kept in touch with air traffic control through Capt. Jason Strickland, the 'mike-charlie' (mission commander) and a 142nd Airlift Squadron pilot whose job is to execute the plan. Capt. Strickland is a traditional (part-time) member.

The Air Force requires Air National Guard C-130 units to regularly fly large formation missions as part to maintain war fighting skills. The last large formation flight of the unit occurred not as a part of normal unit training, but after a combat role. In July, 2003, six C-130 aircraft returned to New Castle, Delaware after flying combat missions in Southwest Asia for four months in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

An additional required skill set is that all aircrew in the 142nd Airlift Squadron must be heavy equipment airdrop certified, and numerous aircrew members had the opportunity to gain this training during the mission.

Because all part-time and full-time unit members trained together on Saturday and Sunday, June 6-7, 2008 during the Delaware Air Guard's monthly training period, enough aircrew were available to conduct the large formation mission.

"The wing has been very active in wartime missions for several years, and this weekend presents a good opportunity to conduct large formation flying," said Col. Groff the day before the flight.

The role of the 166th Aerial Port Flight in this mission was significant. Prior to the flight, five heavy equipment loads, each weighing roughly 3,400 pounds, were rigged with parachutes and given an unsparing inspection, said Master Sgt. Sandy Piccione of the 166th APF. Small training bundles, typically called sandbags and used to simulate a paratrooper jumping out the side door of the aircraft, were readied. "At a predetermined time, these loads were transported to the waiting aircraft via specialized material handling equipment," said Sgt. Piccione. "A team of aerial porters and C-130 loadmasters then carefully loaded each aircraft, a well-rehearsed process that closely adheres to many safety rules."

On the morning of the airdrop, 15 Airmen from the 166th APF assembled at the Coyle Field drop zone, a 75-mile driving distance from the New Castle air base. The team arrived early with two new recruits who watched, participated and learned as 13 experienced hands ran the show, according to Master Sgt. Ken Grabowski, the aerial port's safety officer present at the drop zone. The Airmen recovered all dropped items to haul back to base in trucks. Another job performed by APF members at the drop zone, said Sgt. Piccione, is to help measure how far the point of impact is from the target and report the data to base operations. Two drop zone officers, Lt. Col. Mike Kerwien and Lt. Col. Cathy Hambleton, gathered the data so the unit could determine how accurate the drops where.

The temperature, just over 80 degrees Fahrenheit along the shore, was at least 10 degrees hotter in northern Delaware and southern N.J. "That day was hot," said Sgt. Grabowski. "It was a cold water day." About an hour after the last drop was completed the trucks were back on the road. "There was a lot more activity than a two or three ship drop. It ended up being a pretty long day," said Sgt. Grabowski.

Flight overview:

The formation flew south from New Castle towards Maryland, crossing over the Chesapeake Bay south of Taylor Island, over Patuxent Naval Air Station, and then on to Richmond, Va.

Upon reaching Richmond, the formation headed back north and crossed over the Va.-Md. state border near Nomini Bay on the Potomac River, then Leonardtown, Md., the Patuxent River and then Broomes Island and turned northeast.

The formation flew over the Chesapeake Bay, to Oxford, Md. on the Eastern Shore. The mission headed east and crossed over the Md.-Del. state border in Sussex County, turned south over Bridgeville, Del., crossed over Laurel, Del. and turned southeast. The flight then crossed over the Del.-Md. state border to the southern end of Ocean City, Md.

The formation turned north and hugged the coastline heading to the Md.-Del. state line. The formation flew east of Ocean City, Md. and continued north near Fenwick Island and Bethany Beach. The formation then turned west and followed a racetrack path inland around the Bethany Beach Training Site, headed back south and then headed back east and over the Atlantic Ocean just south of Fenwick Island. The formation then headed north again, past Fenwick Island, Rehoboth Beach and Cape Henlopen. The formation then crossed over the mouth of the Delaware Bay to Cape May Point, N.J., continued north over the drop zone at Coyle Field in the Pine Barrens of N.J., then headed home.