KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- Somewhere over Afghanistan, Capt. Rick Sofge’s heart jumped a beat; his accompanying crew’s eyes fixed on a small paved landing strip appearing around the corner from a sprawling mountain chain.
“We train for it, you expect it, you know it is going to look small, it is going to look weird, and you are going to go “whew,” said Sofge, KC-130 Hercules aircraft commander, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (reinforced), 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, NATO International Security Assistance Force.
Part thrill ride, part freight train, the Marine airplane banks and descends to the patch of paved desert. There is no stopping now; seconds before wheels touch the dusty ground a slight pull on the controls and the plane soars safely into the clouds.
This was only a test of the crew’s ability to adapt to new landscape.
“The terrain is a gigantic issue when you are landing at a higher altitude, which changes the performance of our airplanes,” said Sofge.
Each of these flights is another chance to try a new airfield or talk to a different nation’s radio operator. While all countries share the same basic rules of the sky, each nation may have different expectations of the arriving pilots, crew and cargo, said Maj. Scott Madziarczyk, chief intratheater airlift system, Joint Transportation System, NATO-ISAF.
“When you get on the ground and move cargo, different nations are able to do different things due to national caveats,” he said.
Fitting in among the multinational force has other benefits for the KC-130 crew, a chance to do things peers in Iraq only dream about.
“I think we would all like to do everything our platform is capable of. In Iraq we have become more segregated into certain teams and what we do. Here we have the chance to take a KC-130 and do everything it was built to do, so I hope we get that chance while we are here,” he said.
For him that means, helicopter and fixed wing refueling, resupply drops, and landing on less-than perfect landing strips (short, dirty or at high elevation.)
The KC-130 detachment has worked non-stop since arriving in country, combining training missions with much-needed cargo runs for ISAF.
“If you can name it and fit it into a C-130, they have been flying it around,” said Maj. Madziarczyk. “Over the last 7 days they have been averaging 100 to 170 passengers a day, and 6 to 7,000 kg of cargo.”
“We are doing a sortie per hour, where over in Iraq we would do a sortie and it might last four hours. Big difference, we are doing a lot of hop skipping and jumping. From here to here to here to here, so it’s pretty busy,” explained Sofge.
This particular flight included stops at airfields around the country; a load of cargo here, a group of soldiers there. Typical of their flights in country, they span the region making frequent stops. Due to the required work for each flight, and each landing, the bus-stop like flight schedule translates into a more hectic work schedule for the crews.
“Every leg is more planning, so if you put on four little half hour legs, it’s a whole lot more planning,” he said. “You have to know how you are going to get in, how you are getting out, all while keeping terrain in mind.”
Lost in the talk of terrain and altitudes is the notion that these planes are flying and landing in combat zones. They can’t control whether the enemy will fire at them, so they turn their attention to the things they can control.
“There is a point at which you transition, and I don’t really consider it anymore. I stopped having to think about a guy shooting me, because if I don’t flare I’m going to go into the ground and the wings are going to snap off and we are not going anywhere… if we live,” Sofge explained.
The callous yet reasoned approach of Sofge is on par with his crew, they understand the dangers of their job, but are not restricted by them.
“When you fly into a hostile environment there is a chance you will get shot at,” said Sgt. Alexander Kientz, KC-130 loadmaster, HMM-365 (Rein.), 24th MEU, ISAF, who wears Aircrew Combat Wings, a symbol of his time flying in combat zones.
With over a thousand hours of flight time, including two tours in Iraq, Kientz sees the missions around Afghanistan as a way to get familiar with the area before the 24th MEU begins full-spectrum operations.
“We are just here in support of the MEU, and whatever they need us to do we are comfortable with. We don’t really want to say no to anyone. We want to be as helpful as possible to the MEU or ISAF. If someone needs us to go here and pick something up, then it's just like ‘We’re on it,’” he explained.
That attitude from the squadron is music to Madziarczyk’s ear.
“The day before they called me, I was walking around wishing I had another aircraft,” he explained. “They moved gear for darn near every nation that is here with ISAF. (Every ISAF country has) had someone or something fly around on KC-130s over the last seven days,” he said. “(Now) I’ve got customers asking to fly with them."