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Commander recounts historic Iraq C-17 airdrop

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. (AFPN) -- It was by any measure a landmark moment for airlift operations and the C-17 Globemaster III. The nighttime airdrop last month of 1,000 "Sky Soldiers" from the 173rd Airborne Brigade behind enemy lines into northern Iraq was the largest combat airdrop since the invasion of Panama in December 1989 and a first for the C-17.

It was not just this moment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom that made history, but also the heroic efforts of active-duty and Reserve aircrews and maintainers, and outstanding teamwork by the Army, Air Force and Navy. That is according to Col. Bob Allardice, the 62nd Airlift Wing commander at McChord Air Force Base, Wash., and mission commander for this operation.

He, along with Army Col. William Mayville of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, led the operations for 62 airlift missions over five nights to bring a full Army brigade from Aviano Air Base, Italy, into northern Iraq. A fleet of C-17s delivered more than 400 vehicles, more than 2,000 people, and more than 3,000 tons of equipment. All arrived on time, all without mishap and with great precision.

"People kept saying 'nobody's in the north,'" said the 44-year-old commander. "The next day, there were 1,000 combat troops on the ground in the north. And within a couple more days, there was a full brigade on the ground. Who could do that?"

Only the U.S. military and the combined efforts of all those who touched the mission: planners, aerial port personnel, pilots, Air Force and Navy fighter escorts, aerial refuelers, loadmasters, jump masters, combat communications personnel. Allardice said it was all the soldiers and airmen who have been training for years and who had the dedication to make it happen.

"We had 89 maintainers who launched over a squadron's worth of jets every single day in a very short period of time, with 100 percent reliability. ... I briefed them on what our mission was early on (and told them) 'what I require of you is every single day, I need 100 percent aircraft generation. I can't have a single airplane not make it. I need that from you.' And they gave it to me," he said.

Besides the soldiers of the 173rd, 20 airmen of the 86th Contingency Response Group from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, also parachuted into Iraq that night. They comprised a team of specialists from the intelligence, medical, communications, security, aerial port, engineer and fuels career fields who helped prepare the airfield for use by U.S. forces.

The colonel recalled the events leading to the March 26 airdrop. An important issue for the planners was the threat of hostile fire.

"If you think about it in retrospect, we were flying a large formation into ... hostile airspace. We were escorted by the fighters, but still in hostile airspace," he said.

The colonel said the planners addressed the threat by going through several "what if" scenarios. The planners also hammered out more than 140 possible routes that could be flown into Iraq.

Allardice was in the lead aircraft of the formation of 15 C-17s. As the jet taxied down the ramp, he looked out the window and noticed something amazing happening on the ramp at Aviano, home of the 31st Fighter Wing. Even though the air and ground crews tried to maintain a low profile days before the launch, the base woke up that day to thousands of Army troops and 17 aircraft on the ramp. People knew something big was about to happen.

"There were four airplanes behind me and 10 others lining up at the taxiway," said Allardice. "To see this huge formation on the ground with people everywhere ... there were people on the rooftops, lining the streets, with American flags waving. They understood something big was happening, and that they were part of some very large historic moment. This was so large and so many people (had a part) in this operation, they all felt they were part of it. That's what you want. You want every airman to know they are connected to the mission."

Once in flight, the situation became a little tense for the aircrews from McChord AFB and Charleston AFB, S.C., as reports of bad weather conditions threatened the mission. But, the colonel said, the mission continued.

"The weather was bad when we took off, and the weather was bad two hours out. But based on the forecast and based on the winds, I was convinced the weather would be good when we got (to the drop zone)," he said.

The C-17 aircrews pressed ahead, ready for the challenges of not only that night's airdrop, but also the next four nights that required nighttime landings on an unimproved airstrip with no lighting. Because the operations were at night, night-vision goggles were essential. Once reserved only for special operations, NVGs are now a mainstay for the C-17 aircrews. It was the use of these special goggles that allowed the aircraft to virtually sneak in and out of the area.

The colonel said that while there are so many things that could go wrong behind the scenes, it is "extraordinary airmen conquering the impossible who make a mission like this successful.

"It's not when everything goes right, it's when the impossible presents itself and you have professionals who safely attack the problem to taxi on time, to take off on time, to get the job done," he said. "That is why I love this mission: to see the pride, professionalism and enthusiasm to accomplish the mission regardless of circumstances."

The situation in Afghanistan the year before prepared the troops for this one, in the procedures used to integrate with all the other airborne assets. Allardice also served as the mission commander for the nighttime high-altitude airdrop mission just over 18 months ago to deliver 2.4 million humanitarian daily rations into Afghanistan.

"In Afghanistan we crossed the forward edge of battle the first night. It was the first time the C-17 had done that, the first time the C-17 had been employed in combat. We were new, raw recruits to that world, so we learned those lessons in Afghanistan through trial and error. This time, we walked in with a much better perspective on what was going to be expected. We were able to plan early on much more deliberately. And we had a great connection with the people who build the air tasking order, which is the guide for all air assets. It's historic, too, that we were fully integrated from the very beginning with the entire air package."

The missions were made possible by almost three dozen aerial refuelings, the tireless efforts of airmen with Aviano AB's air mobility squadron, and Air Force and Navy fighter escorts. There was not one part of the air mobility system that was not touched during the operation. Besides delivering forces and equipment, the C-17s also evacuated several wounded soldiers for care in Germany.

"We used every capability you could imagine with the C-17 to do something no other nation in the world could ever bring about. And we did it with a 100 percent success rate. America's getting our money's worth out of this jet," he said. (Courtesy of Air Mobility Command News Service)

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