AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq – Aerial porters from the 870th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron worked steadily alongside loadmasters to load and offload aircraft around the flightline of Al Asad Air Base, Iraq on a busy January afternoon. Some aerial porters drove K-loaders and forklifts while others hopped into the backs of aircraft to move cargo around and prepare it for its final destination.
This constant loading and offloading of various items to and from aircraft requires careful coordination among the aerial porters of the 870th AEAS and they rely on each other’s expertise to efficiently perform their mission.
Normally, an aerial port unit relies on specialized Airmen in different sections to move cargo around the flightline. These sections include specialists in loading and unloading aircraft, palletizing cargo, moving passengers, and load planning aircraft. In a forward-deployed location, however, aerial porters are jacks of all trade to get the job done.
“Here, we do everything,” said Staff Sgt. Adam Hill, an 870th AEAS load planner. “You have to be knowledgeable in every section.”
Hill explained a scenario that is quite common on the flightline. An aerial porter might be driving a forklift in preparation to offload a plane, only to find the job requires a K-loader instead. The aerial porter must have the knowledge and skills to hop off the forklift and jump onto a K-loader to offload the cargo and take it to the correct location. Then the aerial porter has to return to the plane to help other aerial porters and loadmasters push a pallet onto the plane and help secure it for flight.
This detailed knowledge becomes even more complex considering the wide variety of cargo the 870th aerial porters see come through Al Asad. The diverse cargo can include rations, vehicles, rockets or other items.
“I know it’s a joint effort for everybody in order to make the mission happen, but we really do see every single thing that comes in on this base because there is really no viable means of ground shipment in this area so everything has to come via air,” explained Senior Airman Christian Hall, an 870th AEAS aerial porter. “And so without us, the units that are stationed out here wouldn’t have a means to provide critical cargo that they need.”
Given the high level of importance aerial transportation has in the supply chain, it’s important the aerial porters know what they’re up against when a plane is headed inbound so that they can be adequately prepared to load or offload according to the mission. This isn’t always the case, however, as sometimes communication can be a challenge in this austere environment.
“The challenge we run into a lot is communication from us going down or (other) stations going down,” explained Hill. “We’ve had instances where an aircraft has opened up and there will be a completely different load than what we expected.”
He said communications have improved over time, which has allowed them to have a better idea of what to expect on each incoming flight so they can be prepared to offload it.
Challenges aside, Hill said he gets the most pride from being more directly involved in the fight. He said back stateside they typically load a plane and see it off, and that’s basically the extent of their day. Operating in the AOR, however, gets him a few degrees closer to the end user. This can include making sure fighters get ammunition to kill adversaries, the dining facility gets rations to feed everyone, and maintainers get needed parts to keep aircraft flying.
“Here you see that there’s aircraft that are down and that mission can no longer happen until that part gets here,” said Hill. “You just see (how) the big picture all comes together.”