Special delivery from Md. Guard

Soldiers practice cargo drops crucial to Afghan war effort

March 09, 2009|By David Wood | David Wood,david.wood@baltsun.com

Maryland Air National Guard cargo crews are prepping for an expected deployment to Afghanistan next year, flying a critical mission of air-dropping supplies to U.S. troops fighting in remote locations.

Delivering ammunition, rations and water by parachute from the Guard's C-130J cargo planes is increasingly necessary in Afghanistan, not just because troops are being scattered to small, local bases as part of a new strategy, but also because of the growing danger that ground convoys will be attacked by Taliban insurgents, senior U.S. officers said. The more cargo that goes by air, the less risk to soldiers on convoys.

"We're saving soldiers' lives," said Lt. Col. Mike Mentges, a Maryland Air National Guard pilot who flew missions there last year.

To make drops from altitudes ranging from 700 to 25,000 feet, a C-130 lowers its rear ramp, pitches its nose up sharply and unleashes up to a ton of cargo packed in pallets that float down under parachute canopies.

Under extreme conditions such as bad weather or a firefight raging in the drop zone, the Guard can rig a pallet with a satellite location receiver and a steerable parachute, and the cargo will maneuver itself to precise coordinates as much as 10 miles away.

Theoretically, at least, the Maryland Guard could deliver ammunition and rations to a Special Forces team trapped on a high mountain ledge under heavy mortar fire - in a midnight blizzard.

Air-dropping supplies in combat is difficult and risky. But road convoys are so often the target of insurgent attacks that U.S. commanders are now forced to deliver all weapons and ammunition in Afghanistan by air, said Air Force Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, who heads the U.S. Transportation Command. Less critical supplies go by road in safer areas.

American commanders are trying to avoid the fate of Russia's Red Army, which was defeated in 10 years of combat in Afghanistan in part because it couldn't easily resupply its ground forces. Struggling to force their way through insurgent ambushes, improvised explosive devices and land mines, the Russians lost 11,389 trucks, 2,452 armored personnel carriers and command vehicles, and 147 tanks, according to a 1995 U.S. Army study.

Today in Afghanistan, U.S. military convoys that crawl past the rusted wreckage of Red Army vehicles move under heavy guard, usually accompanied by helicopter gunships and jet fighters overhead. Despite precautions, 33 U.S. and allied troops have been killed since Jan. 1 by roadside bombs on Afghan roads.

"You couldn't choose a harder place" to move cargo, McNabb recently told a House Armed Services Committee panel.

Moving cargo by air is more expensive but reduces convoy casualties, he said.

On a recent practice mission in Maryland, Mentges and his crew thundered off a runway at Warfield air base, east of Baltimore, and swung out over a latticework of suburban homes and highways, heading northeast toward Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Glancing occasionally out of the oversized cockpit windows at the landscape tilting 1,000 feet below, Mentges, the colonel who was in Afghanistan last year, and his co-pilot, Capt. Geoff Haan, a 31-year-old from Oneonta, N.Y., kept up a steady exchange with a controller at the Aberdeen drop zone code-named Aegis.

"Aegis, what do you give us for surface winds?"

"Sir, I am at five knots at 010 [degrees], how copy?"

"Copy, five knots at zero one zero," Haan replied crisply.

The highly automated C-130J cockpit includes a computer that calculates precisely the time and point in space to drop the pallet, corrected for the aircraft's speed and altitude and for surface wind speed and direction. It displays the path to that point on one of several cockpit screens.

The cockpit also features an automatic warning system that kept being triggered as Mentges gently coasted down toward Aberdeen and his release point at 700 feet above the ground - outside the speed and altitude parameters set for normal flight operations.

"Terrain ahead, terrain ahead," warned a woman's soft voice, designed to penetrate a busy pilot's distractions.

"Two minutes," Mentges said to his crew on the cargo deck, ordering the ramp to be lowered.

"Too low! Too low! Pull up!" the female recording warned. When no one responded, she added helpfully, "Landing gear! Landing gear!"

"Flaps at 50," Mentges interrupted, dismissing the automatic warnings. "Crew, one minute ... Green light ... pallet clear!"

It looks easy because of the practiced coordination among the flight deck crew, the loadmasters in the cargo bay and air controllers on the ground.

For Maryland's crews, the routines have been honed on three extensive combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, where a typical day might involve three sorties involving airdrops or ground stops to offload cargo or take on casualties.

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