OVER FARAH PROVINCE, Western Afghanistan -- At an unseen point in the dark, Lt. Col. Wil Baulkmon slams down the flaps and pitches up the nose of his lumbering C-130 airlift plane. On the sharply canted cargo bay floor behind him, six tons of cargo strains against its web straps toward the open ramp and the roaring emptiness outside. "Come a little to the right ... a bit more," the navigator says crisply on the intercom. "OK, on course and looking good.''
And with an electronic beeping sound, the straps are cut and the cargo bundles slide silently out into the dark with 26-foot diameter parachutes billowing after them. Even as Flight Torque 46 is droning along toward its next air drop, U.S. troops at a remote outpost below are gratefully ripping open heavy green nylon bags of frozen food, Gatorade and Snapple, ammunition and spare parts packed tight on wooden pallets.
This is the largely unseen but critical part of the war here, the routine air resupply without which the Obama administration's war strategy would falter. It is the ability of the U.S. to airdrop supplies with precision -- and to land the stubby workhorse C-130s with cargo on remote dirt airstrips -- that enables smaller troop units to break away from big bases and operate from remote sites with the food, water and ammo they need.
Dispersing the troops is a key element of the new strategy to provide security for Afghanistan's population, which is scattered in thousands of rural villages and dusty crossroads and deep mountain valleys. Supplying American and allied troops by road is costly, time-consuming and -- because of persistent insurgent attacks on convoys -- often deadly. In the past eight years, 252 American troops have been killed by IEDs on Afghanistan's roads, according to the most recent Pentagon data, with another 1,624 wounded.
The roads are dangerous for other reasons, too. Last year, the U.S. military lost 44 trucks carrying 220,000 gallons of fuel. The skyrocketing appetite for critical resupply has outrun the capacity of U.S. military truck convoys, so local truckers are hired to haul non-lethal cargo, an Army logistics officer told me. But because of bandit roadblocks, insurgent attacks and breakdowns, it takes an average of 21 days for local truckers to struggle from Bagram Air Field, where cargo flights arrive from the U.S. and Europe, to Kandahar, the staging base for allied forces in southern Afghanistan. In winter, it can take twice that long.
"Convoys are favored targets of insurgents,'' a senior Pentagon official told Congress a few months ago. It's not hard to figure out why: strangle the supply of food, water, ammunition, reinforcement troops and blood, and military operations come to a halt. Here, in other words, all roads lead to...the skies. And American forces still control the air.
"Airlift keeps people off the road, and we can save lives," Air Force Gen. Arthur J. Lichte, who leads the Air Mobility Command, told me before I came to Afghanistan. The "surge'' of 21,000 additional U.S. troops into Afghanistan and their dispersal to remote bases has also surged the Air Force resupply effort. This year it's on track to airdrop 28 million pounds, more than triple the amount airdropped in 2007. "You put boots on the ground, they need supplies, and airlift requirements go up – doubling every six months,'' Lichte told me in his office at Scott Air Force Base, Ill.
It takes a furious and continuous ballet of parachute riggers, pallet handlers, loaders and air crews to move the supplies, including 15,000 pounds a day of the most valued cargo in Afghanistan: U.S. mail.
"We're running on adrenalin and three hours of sleep a night,'' Master Sgt. Dave Vesper, a C130 loadmaster, shouted at me as he helped push pallets into an aircraft cargo hold. Like many of the air crews flying these missions, Vesper, 43, is an Air National Guardsman who volunteered for an active-duty assignment here. He's from Mansfield, Ohio.
In fact, Air National Guard crews fly the majority of airlift flights. On rotations of one or two months, they fly their C-130s from their home state to Afghanistan, fly airlift missions four to six times a week, then swap out with another Guard crew before making their three-stop flight back home. It's an expensive shuttle, at $14,762 per C-130 flight hour. But there is no way the active-duty Air Force can met the demand.
Flying airlift in Afghanistan is taxing work. Heavily loaded C-130s have to dodge jet fighters, unmanned drones, commercial 747 cargo liners, transport and attack helicopters and even occasional artillery shells. They squeeze through Afghanistan's high mountain passes and battle heat, blinding dust, heavy winds, radios that fade in and out, and inevitable schedule snafus. Missions last up to 12 hours only on paper.
But Air Guard crews bring deep experience to the job. Torque 46's pilot, Baulkmon, 43, also flies for the Ohio Guard. He used to fly Navy F-18 fighter jets. Now, he's a Continental Airlines pilot when he's not volunteering for Afghanistan. Scrambling around the cargo bay on our flight is 51-year-old William Raby. He's been a National Guard loadmaster for 34 years and has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan seven times.
"It is tiring,'' he said before Torque 46 took off at dusk one recent evening. Like most airmen, he speaks reverentially of "the guys on the ground'' who are taking the risks, living in harsh conditions, doing the fighting. "They do the real work,'' Raby said in his gravelly voice. "We just make sure we get them the stuff they need.''
Guys like Raby and Vesper work industriously and expertly in the hours before an airdrop, helping Army riggers sent here by the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, to pack cargo into bags and stack them onto pallets, strapped down tight and rigged with the proper size parachute. Each pallet is cushioned with eight inches of heavy cardboard honeycomb designed to crush on impact. They get the pallets out to the waiting C-130s and up into the hold, where everything must be packed and trimmed precisely, so the loads will slide out and the chutes will open properly. Any error could result in a "streamer,'' a heavy pallet whose chute fails to open. Streamers are a black eye for the air crews – and the demolished packages a great disappointment for the guys on the ground.
Now here is Raby at work, seconds after the first airdrop and minutes from a second drop. Baulkmon has the plane on one wing, in a tight turn towards the drop zone. Raby is out by the rear ramp, which is open to the night and the barely visible ground sliding along below. He's furiously cutting and slicing away bits of webbing, clearing the way for the next multi-ton set of bundles waiting behind him deep in the cargo bay.
"One minute!'' the navigator intones on the intercom as the nose goes up.
"C'mon, Loads,'' someone urges Raby. "Get the heck out of the way.''
"Forty seconds!'' the navigator announces, just as Raby climbs back over the bundles to safety.
And the second load of the night slides away to the troops below.
"Four bundles away,'' Raby announces. "No streamers.''
It doesn't always go as smoothly. One typical 5:30 a.m. mission called for a Missouri Air Guard C-130 to haul U.S. troops and cargo from Bagram Air Field to Kabul, pick up Afghan National Army soldiers and more cargo, off-load it all in Kandahar, fly different cargo back to Kabul, and then head back to Bagram.
Among its first cargo load on the manifest: a deceased Afghan, identity and circumstances unknown to the C-130 crew. Problem is, the HR ('human remains'') hasn't shown up. Designated flight ISAF 44, the C-130 waits on the tarmac with engines idling.
"Think we can beat that Prowler out of here?'' asks Maj. Chuck "Fig'' Newton, the Missouri Guard co-pilot, nodding toward a Navy EA-6B preparing to taxi.
"Nah, he's already turning (engines)'' says Capt. Cade Keenan, pilot.
"Tell him he's got a door open, that'll fix him,'' responds Newton, a former Marine Harrier jet pilot.
Eventually – hours off schedule – they're told to go ahead without the HR. Thirty minutes later, as Flight ISAF 44 is gear-down and seconds from landing at Kabul, the crew receives a text-message: Come back for the HR. The message is ignored.
As several dozen Afghan National Army soldiers in brand-new uniforms line up to board at Kabul, Keenan and Newton confer: Should they hold the Afghan troops here and fly back just for the HR, or tell Bagram, no way?
They tell Bagram, no way. As the Afghans clamber aboard, smiling bravely but clutching air sick bags, there comes a text message from Bagram: OK, forget the HR.
It is blazing hot in Kandahar and the C-130 needs fuel. No fuel truck is in sight, and Keenan, grumbling, goes stomping off in search of one.
Hours later, fueled and loaded, ISAF 44 heads toward Kabul, where heavy winds have churned up a dust storm that turns blindingly opaque in the setting sun. It's like flying directly into a pastel yellow wall. Keenan gets the C-130 onto the ground, all right, but the cross-winds are fierce. Too fierce, it turns out, to take off again. And a delay of even 90 minutes means the crew would exceed the maximum allowable time on flight duty, requiring 13 hours of rest before they can fly again.
"The bad news is we're stuck here,'' he tells the crew. "If there is good news, it's that I ran into a guy who can get us beds with actual sheets.''
Waiting to see if the wind abates, the crew dozes in their parked C-130, which rocks gently in the gusts. Dust drifts in through the open cargo bay ramp. A tattered Stars & Stripes newspaper is passed around. Suddenly, Keenan bounds up the ramp. "We're going,'' he says, and minutes later ISAF 44 is airborne ("Clear left!'' the navigator calls as the plane slides past a rocky peak). It's been 16 hours since the crew gathered for the flight.
But the cargo was delivered and the crew did its part to get reinforcements and supplies to the ground troops, and that's all that matters.
"You know, apart from being with my wife,'' says Newton, who is normally given to caustic gallows humor, "there is absolutely nothing I'd rather be doing than this.''