I’ve always been fascinated with flight. Since very young I wanted to do something involving aircraft. One of my fondest memories as a child was watching Neil Armstrong step on the Moon. I was enamored by the technology. I was fascinated by the gauges, meters, dials and buttons. I was attracted to the idea of lifting off of the surface of the Earth and landing elsewhere hours latter. In school I got very poor grades, to say the least. Then came sex, drugs and rock & roll. My teen years. My ideas changed about what I could do and what I wanted to do.
I gave up on my dreams of flight and settled for something a bit easier. I enjoy photography but I always really wanted to fly. I took a few lessons here and there. But could never follow through for one reason or another. In my mid twenties I was in the California Air National guard. It was there that I learned about the C-130 and the Flight Engineer position. I made a few phone calls to find out more about the job but decided to first finish my bachelors degree in photography first. After I finished my bachelors I went straight into a Master of Fine Arts program. Then I got a teaching position at a small school in Iowa. So much for flying, or so I thought.
After four years they did away with the program I was teaching. I was in my early forties, I had a masters degree and I was going back into the military as an enlisted flyer. I went through survival school, the worst three weeks of my life. Then water survival, the best three days of my life. About nine months of ground school. The flight engineer’s panel on the C-130 was full of all different types of gauges, meters, dials and buttons. There were even some levers. I was in heaven. Then several months of flight training. Most of my “peers” were in the mid to late twenties. It was a great experience but nothing like the actual real world flying. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
The actual job of the FE is quite demanding and a big responsibility. It’s not often that an officer looks to an enlisted person for guidance but as FE it’s part of the job. The FE’s checklist has more pages than the rest of the crew. We are the first person out to the airplane. We have to do the preflight inspection before the plane is loaded. The FE ensures that the proper quantity of fuel has been-it on the plane. The preflight inspection takes about an hour or a bit less if it’s cold. After the system checks are completed the TOLD is computed. That’s Takeoff and Landing Data. The C-130 can takeoff from some very short runways under diverse conditions. The FE computes if the plane can do the planned mission. We were flying into Chicago Midway one day. I know that several of the runways are very short and that the wind was straight down the runway, that’s a good thing. But we were going to be real fat between cargo and fuel. I told the pilot that he should consider reducing the fuel load a bit. The FE very rarely “tells” the pilot what to do. I always suggested to them what to consider. I also let them know that I had a masters degree and he didn’t. He didn’t need to know that it was in basket weaving.
During flight the FE monitors the engines and propellers. There are eight gages that need to be watched for each of the propellers and engines. There are four engines. I also monitor all the systems and subsystems. There are twelve different electrical systems. AC, DC and battery busses. There is air conditioning, pressurization and oxygen systems. Hydraulics, flight controls, anti-icing and de-icing. The list goes on.
The C-130 has a great mission. The average training flight was about two and half hours. The first hour was low level flying in rural Illinois. We would fly three hundred feet off the ground going two hundred and fifty miles an hour. I loved it. The flying was intense. We were flying at or below many cell phone towers. None of which were on any chart. I’d have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in one hand and my push-to-talk button in the other so that I could call out obstacles before we got too close. Next we would open up the ramp and door for our first airdrop. Then we would pop up to several thousand feet before we descended for our second airdrop. All the time there would be two to six 130s all in close formation. It was pretty amazing.
The C-130 was made for flying in the mountainous terrain in and around Afghanistan. Between the ridge crossings and the forward operating bases with short, gravel runways it was very diverse flying. I’ve flown low over Pakistan after the flooding of 2010, only small patches of land could be spotted for hundreds of miles. I’ve taken off out of Kabul, skimming over kites the boys were flying off the end of the runway. Taking off from Skardu in northern Pakistan is probably my favorite takeoff of all time. The airport is at 7,300’ and the mountains rise up to over fifteen thousand feet on either side. We flew low over the canyon floor as we built up speed, the mountains continue to rise on either side of us.
Many guys hit middle age, drop their wife for the babysitter. Then trade in the minivan for a sports car. Not me! I went back into the Air Force as an enlisted flyer. I spent fifteen years as a flight engineer. I’ve been all over the World. I’ve done airdrops to Troops In Contact, we could see the fire fight just off the drop zone. I’ve met more three star generals than I ever imagined. The highlight of my career as a flyer has been the great people that I’ve been able to work with.
Catfish, Flounder, Brown Guy, Flipper, Doogie, Beaker, Horn Blower, Lady Graga, Pakistani Will, Duce, Blister, Donut, Sippy Cup, Sticky, Drippy, Chin, Baby Load. Every one of them has a story.
And me …
Fruits and Nuts. That’s also a story.