Landing zone cameras mean major improvement in C-17 training

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Levin Boland
  • 97th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
A C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft pilot calculates measurements to figure out the best way to approach a small landing strip in the middle of a hostile environment in Afghanistan.

The landing strip is unpaved and has no lights or painted lines to guide the pilot onto the runway. Instead, it is simply a dirt strip reaching barely beyond 3,000 feet in length and 90 feet width.

As the pilot descends, he aims the aircraft toward the first 500 feet of the makeshift runway. If he does not hit this target, the aircrew and aircraft are in serious danger of running out of flightline.

The pilot hits the mark, landing the aircraft perfectly within the 500-foot target -- thanks to the specialized assault landing training he received at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma.
Assault landings are used to deliver critical cargo directly to front line operating areas with minimal amount of space to land. This training was recently improved with the addition of assault landing zone cameras on the flightline.

Dozens of Altus AFB Airmen collaborated to install the ALZ cameras, which are a new initiative for the Air Force and a major improvement for C-17 training. The 97th Operations Support Squadron, 97th Operations Group standardizations and evaluations office, 97th Civil Engineer Squadron and 97th Communications Squadron worked together to install the cameras.

The cameras are used as a training tool to track where C-17 pilots land during assault landing zone training.

"The assault landing zone is a 3,500 foot strip that we use here at Altus (AFB) to train aircrews to land C-17s in what could potentially be an austere environment," said Maj. Theodore Shanks, the 97th Operations Support Squadron director of operations, who led the project to install the cameras. "The C-17s pilots have to land within the first 500 feet of the runway. The cameras provide feedback about where the landing gears touched down within the landing zone."

Before the cameras were implemented, a qualified instructor had to stay close by the runway to track where each aircraft touched down.

"We wanted to be able to provide this feedback to the instructors and students and our initial answer was to put somebody out in an observation post to track each landing," Shanks said. "The problem with that is we would have to pull another qualified instructor off the flightline to go sit out by the runway all day. This is a good solution to take the instructor's place."

Not only does this initiative produce better qualified pilots, but it is also saves the Air Force money in the form of man-hours.

"The cameras save the Air Force primarily through a smarter use of manpower," Shanks said. "With the cameras, we can significantly improve the training of our C-17 pilots without having to dedicate a formal training unit instructor to sit and monitor the assault landings. The installation of the cameras frees up two instructors per day. In short, we're significantly improving training while employing our instructor corps in the most efficient way possible."

One of the people on the other side of the camera footage is the supervisor of flying, which can be a C-17 or KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft pilot. The footage is sent to the control tower where the supervisor analyzes it.
"As a C-17 instructor, it's a great opportunity for us to be able to have that outside reference to get my students gauged on where they touched down," said Maj. Erick Brough, the 58th Airlift Squadron C-17 training system flight commander. "After doing this for 10 years I know where the middle of the zone is but the students don't. Now when I ask the students where they think they touched down, we can just contact the (supervisor of flying) and get a better idea of where they touched down in the zone, which is important when you're landing a 500,000 pound aircraft within 500 feet."

The supervisor of flying then provides the feedback directly to the aircrew, making even better aircrew.

"Now we have even more refined C-17 loadmasters and pilots that we're introducing out into the operational mission force," Shanks said. "Now we have made them even better by being able to provide them direct feedback."

Before all of this was available, some serious planning had to happen and a lot of it resided with the 97th Communications Squadron Planning and Implementation Element.

"They went over the dilemma that the SOFs were facing with having to go out to the ALZ to assess landings and wondered if there was a way to do this remotely," said Frank Piasecki, the 97th CS Planning and Implementation flight director. "The crew here took up the challenge and produced a number of options to resolve this problem. We worked with a local vendor, with our members doing the actual hook up of the cameras to the network and performing configuration. Some minor tweaks are still being done on the overlay but … I think what amazed me most was the amount of money saved by installing two simple cameras."

This innovation is new to both Altus AFB and the Air Force; it will have a wide impact across the entire Air Force making C-17 aircrew better prepared to land in a short landing zone.

"This is a huge win in terms of cost savings and lean initiatives, but even more importantly we're increasing the quality of training at Altus," Shanks said. "We're able to put forth that added bonus of having a student be even more proficient at missions that are tasked to us. It’s a huge win for the Air Force and for Air Mobility Command and I know Altus (AFB) is excited to have been able to produce that result."