Redbull hangár

Redbull hangár

2015. február 1., vasárnap

Fun flight with C-17 - visiting the Heavy Airlift Wing at Pápa

Text and videos: Gabriella, photos: Nándor Emil Dudás

I wrote a report last summer about my friend, Balázs Gampel who acts as a C-17 aircraft technician at Pápa Air Base, introducing his work, the company environment and the maintenance of the three aircraft managed by Boeing. (You can read it here: Pápa report - part I.) Shortly after the publication, 161 likes could be seen under the post which is an absolute record in the blog’s history. Then Ville Tuokko, Public Affairs Officer of the Heavy Airlift Wing emailed to me and said, that he got very good feedback from Boeing and the Heavy Airlift Wing regarding the report. I was really happy to see this success. To tell you the truth, we really did our best with the photographer, Szabolcs Simó. Ville asked me if I feel like to return and make a second part about the military part of the C-17 program this time. It’s not necessary to ask me two-times, when I have the possibility to hang around at an air base, especially after I asked: “Is it possible to fly as well?” and the answer was: “We will solve it!”
I organized Emil to photographer this time and we have the chance before Christmas to experience on board, how it feels to fly flat out over the Bakony hills on 150 meter during an air drop mission. We recorded it for you in the form of videos. We experienced an exciting landing in the end what Emil could photograph from the cockpit.
And how much organizing is necessary to do it smoothly and to take the aircraft from A to B? It has turned out from our conversations with the commander of the Heavy Airlift Squadron and his colleagues.

The most exciting thing in the project was, that we haven’t known till the day of the report, what flight mission we would participate in as mission observers. We were advised to dress warm clothes and take some food and water. We had to send our passport numbers and the telephone number of a person whom they could call in an emergency situation and were asked for not saying anything about the report to anybody. Oh my God – I thought – where to will we go? I set up the alert chain (one of my English-speaking friends was the emergency contact, she would have called my mother in case of an unplanned way of landing probably), we got dressed in the morning like polar explorers (OK, only I did it…) and we put some muesli bars and some water bottles into our bags as survival kit.
Otherwise our arrival to Pápa was very stylish the previous night: we saw the lights of a landing C-17 from the train, as we passed the air base. It has turned out next day, that this plane has returned from Aviano, where they dropped paratroopers and Humvees. It took my breath away, because I saw a video on Facebook about it recently:

The Public Affairs Officer waited us at the gate at eight o’clock next morning and gave us military helmets and reflective vests. The first one was required as a safety precaution for the part of the mission when the aircraft was flying with its ramp open, the second one was required always when entering the flightline at Pápa Air Base, helps to avoid hitting by the maintenance guys’ noiseless electric car for example. I wouldn’t have been surprised, if we had got small arms as well, but it didn’t happen. But we finally got to know what would be the daily program and that we won’t leave the county either. We weren’t sad about it, because we could fly and this is the only thing which is important. Because it could happen, that conditions change (for example weather goes bad or a longer flight mission occurs) and we stay on ground.
Before I come to the happenings of the day, I give you some basic info about the Heavy Airlift Wing which has been active since 17th July 2009. Approximately 135 people are working here, soldiers and civilians in three squadrons: Heavy Airlift Squadron (HAS), Logistics Support Squadron (LSS), Command and Control Squadron (C2S). The staff provided by those 12 nations who finance the operating costs of the three C-17s. People are replaced with new ones in every few years, so the composition of personnel is always changing. Hungarian soldiers are not exceptions either. Foreign soldiers arrive with their families; a local organization was established to support them. It is planned to hire new member nations into the SAC (Strategic Airlift Capability) program with increasing the utilization of the 3 aircraft, or buying or renting further jets. It is very interesting in this context, that Boeing will stop its C-17 production line soon, so other type of aircraft can be considered if they really want to enlarge the fleet. We got to know it as well, that the wing can provide 24/7 service if it is necessary. The C-17 fleet reached the 15.000th flight hour in last November.
If everything goes well, we can see C-17s at Pápa for another 25 year, because this is their estimated operating time. To keep it, it is necessary to develop the base constantly, a new hangar complex is built in the scope if this. Boeing, HAW and NATO Airlift Management Programme Office (the acquisition and sustainment authority who responsible of the full life cycle management of the SAC C-17s) will move into it and it will include a maintenance hangar as well. Only the excavation works take at the moment, but the process of building will obviously accelerate this year, as it will be finished by 2016. The air base’s infrastructure is developed in the same time: extending the runway, widening the taxiways, building a new control tower for example. Enlarging the gym is also in process, what we saw with our own eyes from the window of the squadron commander.

Because while we were waiting for the briefing before the flight, we visited the commander of the Heavy Airlift Squadron to get to know more about its operation. Lieutenant-Colonel Eric J. Howland has an Industrial Technology degree and also trained in the field of logistics. He’s been flying for 18 years as the pilot of US Air Force, during his service he was working as an advisor in Iraq as well. He’s been at Pápa since 2013, appointed to squadron commander in 2014 July. 

Being the commander of Heavy Airlift Squadron and a pilot, you have the whole picture about the operation of flight tasks. First of all, could you tell me details about your professional background and your usual responsibilities as a commander and as a pilot?

My career started at the US Air Force in 1996 as a pilot after graduation from training on the C-141B. I flew that two and a half years till they were phased out as an old aircraft, built in the 60’s. Then we switched to C-17s.
I’m in charge to make sure, that the squadron runs and equipped, to give people the necessary training hours. We have a director of operations who pretty much takes care of flight missions and issues come up on a mission or scheduling problems. Personally I get only short updates from him. More projects are behind me and different tasks I’m tracking. Airdrops, technical operations of the C-17s, air refueling are other issues.
I’ve just get back from an airdrop late last night from Aviano where we dropped U.S. Army personnel and equipment. We dropped Humvees and persons and sort of stuff even in the dark. 45% of our missions is bringing cargo and persons from point A to Point B. to ISAF. /Update: This operation ended at the end of 2014 and now they are supporting the SAC nations in the NATO-led training, advice and assistance mission Resolute Support (RSM) – the author/ We postpone these operations, when there is a national disaster (much like the typhoon’s coming to the Philippines) and there is a national request for military support. We watch the news, see what is in the headlines and which nations would turn to us asking to support this.

Being a commander means less flight hours for you?

Yes, unfortunately I cannot fly as much as I would like. I usually fly one short mission a month, which means 3 days off from the office.

How long did the C-17 training take for you?

It’s a four-month training and what happens when you graduated and qualified to fly, but you are still not an aircraft commander, but a co-pilot. After experience has built and a lot of flight hours reached, the next grade: aircraft commander. It typically means two years in the program to have enough experience. It is not just about flight hours, the knowledge is also necessary to handle the machine in charge of a mission. The commander is responsible to a 240 million dollar aircraft, the crew’s safety, the cargo, the passengers. So we want be sure, that the pilot is ready to take this responsibility. For the selected ones, this upgrade takes approximately two months. They came back from a 3-4 moths operational training locally, even here at Pápa, simulating aircraft commander tasks with another aircraft commander or an instructor pilot helping them on board. When we say yes, you are ready to go on your own, still an instructor pilot will follow them in the last step. This year we reached a good milestone, to have the first Hungarian, Romanian and Polish aircraft commanders.

From a pilot point of view, which is the most interesting or risky mission type?

Everything in flying can cause a risk. If you look at the history of aviation most accidents happened at take off or landing, so anytime you take off or land, the more issues happen. Everybody’s job on board is dangerous, not just the pilots’, but the aircrew’s and the paratroopers’ jumping out. Air-to-Air Refueling is dangerous, because you have two aircraft approximately 10 meters apart from each other, flying 6 miles a minute in the same direction. But we do everything to minimize that risk. We are trained to high level where everybody is so professional, that we don’t have to be worry about risk. Air refueling and air drops are going on for so long, that nothing really new happens out there. So the most risky thing, personally I would say, Air-to-Air Refueling, because they have to be very close to each other. And flying can be bumpy, when we are in the clouds.

How often can you practice air refueling?

We, pilots have a long list what we have to practice: landings, take offs and different kind of approaches, air refueling, air drop qualifying (with different personnel, heavy equipment), NVG (Night Vision Goggles) operations which is a different currency. Typically in every month we have to practice take off and approaches and every sixty days we have to do an air-to-air refueling. But if we miss it, there has to be an instructor on board with us next time, to make sure that we still remember how to do everything. Air refueling training is our biggest challenge, because as I mentioned, we don’t have assets in SAC. We borrow Dutch KC-10s from Eindhoven mostly (or the US Air Force provides tanker jets), but if they are busy with their on national mission tasks, they cannot support us. So we are struggling with it, but we maintain 50% currency for air refueling training.

I heard that among HAW’s future developments, there will be a flight simulator in the hangar complex. In what kind of missions would it help the pilots?

First of all, it’s not guaranteed, there are discussions about it. The 12 nations have to decide if they want to invest in this capability. The C-17 simulator is not a typical one. We would simulate everything with it for example emergency situations with the whole crew like engine fire, having a bird strike, flight controls are not working. We can also practice a mission scenario, dealing with emergencies, doing combat operations. So it’s a very good training what we cannot do on board. Every flight hour on a C-17 costs tens of thousands of dollars, flying it on a simulator is only 300. So it’s cost-effective, to do much more in the sim. People can experience the stress in emergency situations and can learn how to react, how the aircraft reacts and how the team can get back on ground. So having a sim here would be a great benefit for our pilots and loadmasters (member of the flight crew who is responsible for the payload). Currently we go back to the US four times a year for training opportunities. It means 28 days in a year when they away are from their family. Having this facility here, they would go home for dinner at the end of the day.

Also among the planned future developments is the Portable Flight Planning System. Could you tell me something about its purpose and advantages?

We call it PFPS in short. It’s mostly used in low level flying airdrops environment. Before we take off with the aircraft, we can see a plan for all the conditions of take off, and make sure, that we are not too heavy, not over the limit, we don’t have any issues with the destinations where we will land, so we can take off. It is also tied to another system called “FalconView” which we currently use for preliminary flight plans. We put that into our planning system. We see exactly what we are flying over. When I’m on 35.000 feet I’m usually not too concerned about the terrain, but when I’m on flying on 500-1.000 feet, I’m more concerned about the terrain. That’s why we take both to look at what we are going to fly, what obstacles need to be avoided, whether it’s a tower, a mountain, a village which we try the best not to fly over. It figures out altitudes, where the drop zones are. We can look into it to see different angles, how to come into that drop zone, the safest way to the paratroopers. We also save this data as a file and can take them onboard uploaded it into the aircraft’s computer, what saves us time in the jet. An aircraft has to be rather in the air so it’s always a goal to minimize the time of standing on the ground.

I heard that C-17 pilots of Pápa use tablets on boards. Are these for navigation purposes?

We have an iPad system currently. All aviation community use flight publications, charts, different papers in a bag. 80-100 papers which we need to carry on board. These are expired in every month, so we need to throw them out. That’s why a lot of airlines bought iPads and military is also moving to this way. We try to move on those paper documents to these iPads. We are currently under the certification process (certifying them for flights), considering putting maps on them which would give use more situation awareness. But now the C-17 flight operation papers are half a meter tall, what also need to carry on board, weather and flight plans for the route. But we could take them digitally, hopefully it will be approved by 2015 by NTA (National Transportation Authority). We work closely with Boeing community, because no other C-17 user uses iPads like we do right now, they all rely on papers. We are probable ahead of the global C-17 fleet getting our iPads on, but we need to get the certification from Boeing and also from the NTA to this equipment to use.

Is it more difficult to supervise a multinational staff then a single nation one?

Yes. HAW did a good job to standardize the rules for how we operate the aircraft. But in this program, each of the nations retains the administration control. Each nation has their own rules about how many day is a work week, how many vacations they need to have, how they are get paid after a mission. So each nation brings a different challenge regarding how to employ the people. I can use anybody when the squadron needs them, but sometimes there is a lead time for some nations to access for proper paper work. Some nations have to use their leave in the summer, so we have to count with it. So sometimes it is challenging. As a commander of a single squadron the other thing what I really don’t have: power regarding the punishment. What is really not necessary, because my people don’t have issues. I have responsibility for mentoring, but don’t have any responsibility if people under me have a difficulty, for example not getting paid from their home nation. I cannot act on behalf, because I’m not part of that nation, but it affects how they perform in the squadron. But I don’t have the power to solve that problem as a commander. If it is in my nation, I can go to my peer at finance asking for help to solve that issue. If it is another nation I can go to the SNR (Senior National Representatives – the national leader for personnel’s) asking his help. I would like to help them more, but I can’t.

You mentioned mentoring. Is there a mentor program at the squadron?

We have a chief pilot, who is a senior pilot in C-17 program and has his own office. Pilots can sit down there ask questions regarding flying and he helps them out and he can also provide them with an advice if they have a concern and they don’t want to ask their boss and want to be unknown. The loadmasters have the same mentoring, we have a chief loadmaster who is very experienced. The chief pilot and loadmaster also follow the personal developments. If, for example the chief loadmaster recognizes that some people have a problem the same task, then he tells me that they need more training.

We ended our conversation and we went to the briefing what is the meeting of the flight crew right before the flight.

We still had time before briefing so we pop up to the Command and Control squadron where we weren’t allowed to take photos unfortunately as there were too much actual and planned flight mission related info could be seen in the screens and boards. We met one of the Hungarian soldiers, Gabor Lippai master sergeant who introduced his unit to us. As it has turned out, the squadron fits and plans the claims of the 12 nations and get the necessary diplomatic permissions to the flight routes. Creating the working processes was easy at the Heavy Airlift Squadron, because they used the best practices of the US Air Force from the beginning as an old and well-functioning system. But they had to stand up a new protocol for getting the permissions at the C2 squadron at the beginning, because the Hungarian military protocol didn’t work here. It was difficult and time-consuming with many indirect organizations. A big unit with lots of flight missions wouldn’t have worked this way. Gábor told me, that my friend Balázs Gampel had a major role in the simplification of the process, when he worked at the squadron. Now he’s taking care of the C-17s at Boeing Pápa, but still innovative, that’s why he became the employee of the month in December at the whole, global Boeing C-17 department which means thousands of people.
The circumstances of the missions are often changing, thus re-planning is not rare, for example when they need to provide support in connection with a natural disaster. These cases have a higher priority in the “timetable”. Organizing a mission takes a month at least from the arrival of the request. The members of this squadron can see a future a bit as they have a meeting with the representatives of the 12 nations in every quarter who represent their preliminary claims. It is among their duties to organize the preparation of the aircraft at home and its ground service abroad, the accommodation for the flying crew. They keep in touch with them during the flight and could send them any data to the on board computer with the satellite-based communication system, called ACARS which is basically used for tracking. They also can see about if the team has a problem abroad. They need to know at C2 how the foreign air bases are equipped (in case of a minor local maintenance for example) and they have to organize everything with ensuring the necessary rest for the staff, letting them to concentrate to their tasks 100%. So who works here, can write in her/his CV, that she/he is very flexible and stress-resistant and has outstanding problem-solving skill. Although they didn’t seem very stressful and I haven’t heard anybody to speak about his job with such enthusiasm like Gábor before.

We couldn’t visit the Logistics Support Squadron because the lack of time, we just saw the result of their work as the properly packed and fixed payload on board. LSS Aerial Port is responsible of the cargo handling. Another LSS group of personnel called the Flying Crew Chiefs (FCC) travels with the aircraft for maintenance needs. It is important, that they can do it only when the aircraft is standing on the ground. We didn’t have such expert on board, because our mission was a short one. Usually a longer mission’s crew consists of 3 pilots, 2 flight crew chiefs and 2 loadmasters.

We go out to the jet with a minibus in the company of the flight crew. We had more than an hour till take off so we can look around on board. Pilots checked the systems, the loadmasters the fixing of the cargo pallets.

18 pallets can be in the cargo compartment at full payload, leaving place only 7 seats only.

The screens of the ACARS system on the right side of the elevator with printing function, as part of the mission computer

On board "office" of the chief loadmaster

Balloons filled with water often used to air drop training

One of the advantages of being a pilot of a cargo jet and not a fighter jet: you can go out to the toilet during the flight :-)

Rest place of the crew in the back of the cockpit - with a view to the cargo

The kitchen with food storing, heating and cooling function

Then they started the four engines in a row and we took off after a while. Everything was similar to flying with a commercial aircraft up to this point. But when we flew over the drop zone and they opened the ramp tentatively and we could enjoy the panorama of the bit bare training field in the Bakony which has flitted past under us. (This field got the name of Balaton Drop Zone from the wing when they agreed about its usage with the Hungarian Army.) It was surprising, that also we were sitting close to the ramp, there wasn’t any draught and the plane didn’t cool down inside during that few minutes while the ramp was opened. The heating was excellent anyway (around 20 Co degrees) so I should not have taken that very warm jacket.

Preparing the parachute for the next drop

Waiting for the ramp opening - the loadmasters are fixed to the aircraft during this process because of safety reasons

Some rest between two drops

Emil - like a real war photographer

The author in full protective equipment

When we dropped all part of the payload, I thought, this the end of the story. Although it was a bit strange to see, that they fix Emil to the seat with a six-point belt, like a rally-driver when he moved to the cockpit to take photos of the landing. Shortly after I sat back to my place, I felt vacuum in my stomach suddenly. I‘ve already experienced aerobatics two times and I can deal with the G forces better than ordinary people, but it was something new to me.  (Although I sat perpendicularly to the flying direction this time.) As didn’t see out, I couldn’t imagine what the hell they doing with the plane. It was like as we would lose height, but I wasn’t sure about it. I realized immediately why the helmet is so useful: I knocked my head to the wall time to time. Then everything was normal again in the next moment. But the “fun park” hasn’t closed yet. Landing happened with such a heavy braking, that I have to grasp the bottom of my seat with all of my power, because I wasn’t sure, that the two-pointed safety belt around my waist would hold me. When we stopped and I look up, I saw the worried face of Public Affairs officer and one of the loadmasters , checking if I still alive. I show them the international sign that I’m OK. Emil told me later, that although he could look out, the events were also unexpected to him. He couldn’t decide what to hold: the safety belt or his camera. Fortunately he could take some pics during in the meantime. Here’s the result:

HUD (head-up display) in use

Fabulous view from the cockpit

When we got into the bus again the US instructor pilot asked my opinion about the C-17 – with a suspiciously big smile. I replied, that it is a very surprising jet, but we enjoyed the flight very much. And we really did! I’ve known before, that although it is a stumpy jet, but has outstanding maneuvering skills and needs only a small place to land, but it is very different to experience it on board. Then he told us what really happened.
They decided to practice a so called Tactical Approach used in conflict zone consisting of a tight bank and maneuvers to reduce speed and altitude. (It was carried out for training purposes.) This was so strange to my stomach although I had to deal only with +2G in the back. It took only 500 m to stop after the ground touching point, which is an impressive achievement from such a monster like this. (Citing Emil’s simile: it was like stopping a car with suddenly pulling the handbrake.) So that’s why we had to grasp that much.
The suspect is still alive in me, that our pilot practiced these meneuvers exclusively to our honor just now – to get out the most what is possible from this short flight mission or to experience our limits J
This is how it was seen from the ground:

We spent 1 hour and 20 minutes in the air, but it has passed quickly. We had some more time to speak with the instructor pilot after debriefing. He’s been serving at the wing from 2014 August as the officer of the US Air Force. Taking his work schedule, usually he flies two weeks, what one week ground service follows which he mainly uses to follow himself in administration. He told us, that he flew the AC-130 Gunship as well before the C-17. He attended more dangerous countries sometimes during the flight missions, but the members of the missions security forces (the so called HAWCS) join to protect the flight crew at these occasions. Pilots are also trained for the usage of small arms, but they had to deal with flying basically. If the risk factors are too high, they choose another airfield.

The debriefing

They day was over for us with this chat and we said good bye to our kind hosts. We agreed with Emil, that it was an awesome experience and we would repeat it gladly. We hope, that we can return in relation of another interesting topic. My military paratrooper acquaintances mentioned, that jumping out from the C-17 is also very cool J

We thank the invitation and the unforgettable day for the Heavy Airlift Wing!