Saturday, December 16, 2006

Afstan: CC-130H Hercs in action

A "tactical" op:
Many Canadian and Coalition troops on the ground in southern Afghanistan are enduring regular attacks from Taliban fighters. At the same time, the soldiers are also battling Afghanistan's ferocious climate. Some units are virtually snow-bound. Re-supply convoys risk nearly impassable roads that are ideal for ambushes.

And so, in the sky, the men and women of Canada's air force frequently wage their own battles to keep the combat troops supplied with food and ammunition. On this frosty December morning, their frontline is a massive grey Hercules C130 H aircraft commanded by Captain Blair McArthur of Alberta.

Somewhere in the mountains is an isolated unit of American soldiers. Captain McArthur is no-nonsense as he preps his seven-person crew for the upcoming flight. "These guys [the Americans] aren't quite down to their last bean and last bullet," McArthur says, "but almost."

The mission seems straightforward: Fly over the American position and air-drop vital supplies to the troops below. But the weather is bad, the area covered by dense cloud. In the surrounding hills are Taliban fighters carrying small arms and -- possibly -- portable anti-aircraft missiles.

The plane is fully loaded, the enormous pallets jammed into the hold are strapped down. To avoid enemy fire, the crew will be doing "tactical flying": as an indication of the violent maneuvers ahead, the crew chief hands one passenger a stack of air-sickness bags. Taped to the roof of the cockpit is a detailed document entitled, "crash-landing checklist."

The roaring propellers pull the Hercules into the air, one of the 200 daily flights that pass through the busy Kandahar airfield. The crew is gloomy about the chances of successfully finding the drop-zone. But failure will leave the troops on the ground in a tight spot.

The aircraft engines drone in muffled thunder as the plane crawls over southern Afghanistan's harsh, sun-bleached landscape. Not a hint of green breaks up the khaki-colored desert plains. In the distance loom snow-topped mountain ranges blanketed by billowing clouds.

And then it's "show time." The Hercules begins to turn in gentle circles over a white carpet of cloud.

Invisible somewhere below are U.S. soldiers waiting for their supplies. But only the rocky summits of mountain peaks push up through the cloud.

In the bathroom-sized cockpit, four men have their noses pressed against the windscreen. The navigator, Captain Ken Barling of Ottawa, shuttles quickly between the maps resting on his small table at the side of the cockpit and the front window next to the pilot.

"Weather's looking bad," Barling shouts to a passenger. "We may not be able to drop." He shakes his head and looks at the pilot, "We're going to take a look, but..."

Minutes slip by as the pilot makes repeated passes over the area. Eventually his fuel will run low and the drop will be called off.

Suddenly, in some near-miraculous way known only to the crew, the drop zone is located. The Hercules'engines holler as the plane plunges headlong into the cloud. It's a sickening, exhilarating sensation of being almost weightless. The altimeter measuring the plane's altitude spins crazily, dropping lower and lower. The peaks all rise above the aircraft. The crew is steering through a valley.

In the cockpit, warning beeps warn about the low altitude. "One minute!" A crew member shouts from the back of the plane. "One minute!" comes the shouted reply from others in the aircraft. The enormous rear door of the "Herc" opens to reveal the ground underneath speeding past. "Thirty seconds!"someone yells. "Thirty seconds," everyone replies.

In a blast of dust and noise, the pallets of supplies are ejected out the back ramp. Their parachutes open successfully and the crew cheers over the radio headsets. But as one mission ends, another begins: now the pilot must escape from the area without attracting Taliban gunfire.

The Hercules twists and turns through the mountain canyon. The gritty mountainsides seem to press in on either side of the wingtips. We run so close to the edges that paths across the hills are clearly visible to the naked eye. A Taliban fighter with a strong arm could probably hit the Hercules with a stone.

This is an aircraft nearly the size of a Boeing 737 thundering along a narrow pass between soaring peaks. For a passenger, it's like racing in an Air Canada flight between the skyscrapers on Bay Street in downtown Toronto.

Then it's time to retreat back up to the clouds. The captain pulls the plane into an abrupt, steep climb that buckles the knees of anyone standing upright. Arms and legs, even the head, become impossibly heavy.

Moments later, the plane levels off. The flight is once again calm and level. The crew is elated.

The first officer, Captain Victor Mota of Toronto, says this is the kind of intense, demanding flying he could never find working for a commercial airline.

The risks are high, but so are the professional and personal rewards of accomplishing tough missions against formidable odds.

"It's just awesome," he says.
Indeed. See also this.

For the declining state of the Herc fleet of CC-130Es see this comment at


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