Airlift squadron provides mission versatility to Afghan theater

Staff Sgt. John Pittman, 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron loadmaster, prepares a C-130J Hercules for takeoff from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan Nov. 10, 2016. Afghanistan has been called a “Herk’s playground” because of the aircraft’s ability to handle the austere environment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Staff Sgt. John Pittman, a 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron loadmaster, prepares a C-130J Super Hercules for takeoff from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Nov. 10, 2016. The versatility offered by the C-130J allows it to be used in a variety of tactical airlift missions throughout the Afghan theater – including everything from aeromedical evacuations to providing airlift for Operation Resolute Support’s train, advise and assist mission. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Capts. Nick Bonner and David Tart, 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron C-130J Hercules pilots, fly a C-130 to Farah Airfield, Afghanistan Nov. 10, 2016. The 774th EAS uses the unique versatility of the C-130 to supplement tactical airlift capabilities for units in and out of austere locations under atypical conditions. Edits were made to this image for security purposes. (U.S. Air Force illustration by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Capts. Nick Bonner and David Tart, 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron C-130J Super Hercules pilots, fly a C-130 to Farah Airfield, Afghanistan, Nov. 10, 2016. The 774th EAS uses the unique versatility of the C-130J to supplement tactical airlift capabilities for units in and out of austere locations under atypical conditions. (Edits were made to this image for security purposes -- U.S. Air Force illustration/Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Members of the 10th Special Forces Group load onto a C-130J Hercules belonging to the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron at Farah Airfield, Afghanistan Nov. 10, 2016. The 774th EAS uses the unique versatility of the C-130 to supplement tactical airlift capabilities in and out of austere locations under atypical conditions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Members of the 10th Special Forces Group load onto a C-130J Super Hercules belonging to the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron at Farah Airfield, Afghanistan, Nov. 10, 2016. The 774th EAS uses the unique versatility of the C-130J to supplement tactical airlift capabilities in and out of austere locations under atypical conditions. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Staff Sgt. John Pittman, 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron loadmaster, prepares a C-130J Hercules for takeoff from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan Nov. 10, 2016. The C-130J’s versatility allows loadmasters like Pittman to reconfigure its cargo space to handle outsized and non-standard cargo, as well as large numbers of personnel and paratroopers, depending on the required mission set. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Staff Sgt. John Pittman, a 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron loadmaster, prepares a C-130J Super Hercules for takeoff from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Nov. 10, 2016. The C-130J’s versatility allows loadmasters to reconfigure its cargo space to handle outsized and non-standard cargo, as well as large numbers of personnel and paratroopers, depending on the required mission set. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- A C-130J Super Hercules comes to a screeching halt on a runway less than half the length of those typically used at stateside airfields. The cargo bay door is opened onto a pitch black airstrip – a shock for those used to seeing bright lights guiding pilots down the ramp.

The airfield is near Farah, a remote location in western Afghanistan. For C-130J pilots belonging to the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron out of Bagram Airfield this is exactly the atypical situation they train for.

“The crews always love the challenge – getting the Herk dirty, that’s what we live for,” said Lt. Col. Sarah Santoro, the 774th EAS commander.

Afghanistan has been called the “Herk’s Playground.” The high pressure altitude; extreme temperature disparity; and harsh, mountainous terrain, make for a challenging environment that often pushes aircraft to maximum performance.

“Taking off out of (Farah) we were about 130,000 pounds, which is max performing on that strip (for that mission’s performance conditions),” said Capt. Nick Bonner, the 774th EAS C-130J aircraft commander. “That is something you rarely do in peacetime operations – where you actually max out an LZ.

“That’s the challenge – taking the aircraft to its limit, your limit and getting the mission done.”

In order to prepare for missions like Farah, the current rotation of C-130J pilots and loadmasters began training months out from their deployment. They held realistic training exercises in Alaska as well as Green Flag-Little Rock in Arkansas to prepare for the diverse mission set Afghanistan offers with significant terrain, adverse weather, and diverse types of cargo movements.

“There’s training that we do at home and then talk to the people that have the experience, who have been to places like this, getting ideas and techniques,” Bonner said. “Then we put all that together so that when we face issues, we’ll actually be prepared for it.”

The “J” model of the C-130 currently being used in Afghanistan has upgrades making it even more suited to the setting here.

The versatility offered by the C-130J allows it to be used in a variety of tactical airlift missions throughout the Afghan theater – including everything from aeromedical evacuations to missions like the one to Farah – providing airlift for Operation Resolute Support’s train, advise and assist mission.

“The complex operating environment of Afghanistan, with the very rugged terrain that you see around here, the (C-130)J is very well-suited for that,” Santoro said. “We have extra power, we have extra pallet positions and we can get into those remote landing strips that we need to get into. Having more power means we can go farther, faster, higher … to get the job done here in Afghanistan.”

In addition to the support they provide to Operations Resolute Support and Freedom’s Sentinel, the 774th EAS goes wherever U.S. Central Command needs them.

“There was a dirt landing zone that we had to go into recently, that literally the only platform that could get the mission done was the C-130J,” Santoro said.

The cargo bay can be reconfigured to suit a variety of mission sets to move outsized and non-standard cargo, as well as large numbers of personnel or paratroopers. It can be converted to an airborne hospital. Cargo and personnel can be delivered to an airstrip or airdropped according to the situation.

“That’s something that’s unique to the C-130 – we are rapidly reconfigurable to take anything you need moved. You let us know and we can get it there -- anywhere, anytime,” Santoro said.

Stepping out of the aircraft onto the dark airstrip of Farah, one can barely make out the silhouette of towering mountains on either side. Emerging from the darkness are vehicles and special operations personnel prepared to move on to their next mission.