It’s just after lunch on a cold, dreary Wednesday in Eastern Ontario, Canada. A pristine lake with mist settled above the waters sits quietly, surrounded by densely-forested hills, cabins and cottages scattered around the shores. A dull noise in the distance approaches, turning quickly into a roar as two grey C-130J Super Hercules tactical airlift transports race over a hill at altitudes so low, you could probably touch their bellies if you raised your hands above your head.
In the cockpit of Burma 2-1, the lead Herc in this two-ship formation, we’re dodging missiles fired off by unseen enemy combatants on the ground. Captain Jeff Moorhouse calmly calls out missile launches as the two aircraft in Burma Flight maneuver in response. You can feel the G forces coming on as the Herc suddenly banks, its left wing aimed at the ground and the horizon turning into a rapidly decreasing obtuse angle. My 2 lb Canon camera somehow feels like it’s now 30 lbs, and I’m hefting it to my face, trying to grab a shot of the spectacular scene unfolding right in front of me as I sit in the jump seat behind the two pilots of Burma 2-1.
Of course, we’re not trying to outfox real missiles – this is just a drill, but a highly realistic mission nonetheless. Today, I get to fly with the best of Canada’s best on a training run in a C-130J (known as the CC-130J in Canadian military parlance) at altitudes that would make most ordinary pilots feel thoroughly uncomfortable, especially in an aircraft of this size. It’ll be a two-ship flight, meaning that two Super Hercs will fly this mission, always in close formation throughout the entire flight… even during takeoff. These two aircraft belong to one of the most storied Canadian transportation units in existence – 436 Transport Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 8 Wing, based out of Canadian Forces Base Trenton.
436 Squadron traces its lineage back to the Second World War, where it was officially stood up in 1944 in India to serve as a forward-deployed logistics support element for Allied forces fighting the Imperial Japanese military in neighboring countries. 436 soon became known as “Canucks Unlimited”, and its pilots and crew earned a reputation for themselves thanks to their adoption of a spartan lifestyle and highly rigorous training methods. In order to save time between sorties, crew opted to eat dry meals instead of hot cooked meals, spurning a luxury widely available to aircrew at Allied bases. Maintenance methods were revamped by the squadron’s innovative engineering officer, who devised a way for crews to swap out their aircraft’s engines in two days instead of the usual three, returning grounded aircraft back to flight status quickly. Back then, Douglas C-47s, known as Dakotas in Canada, were 436’s workhorse of choice. In the years since, the highly-dependable C-130 filled that role. Today, we’re flying in the most advanced C-130s in the world, the Super Hercules.
Escorting me on-base today is Lieutenant Karyn Mazurek, a career military officer who formerly served on Canadian naval warships before her current job in public affairs. Lt. Mazurek and I are ushered into a briefing room upon reaching 436’s hangars. This room lined with computers hooked up to databases networks full of information which aircrew study intensely prior to a flight. We’re told to turn off our phones as we enter, and we quietly stand at a table. Everything is timed perfectly, and to that end, the officer leading the briefing calls out warnings prior to the start of the information session. Data sheets relevant to the training mission are handed out and everybody gets a copy. What we’re witnessing is actually called a “concept”, where everything the pilots and aircrew need to know about the mission they’ll soon fly is disseminated via ranking officers and critical personnel, like air traffic controllers and weather monitors. Today’s flight is a training exercise – two new pilots will be getting more hands-on time with the C-130J under the watchful eyes of experienced tactically-qualified pilots, while a pair of loadmasters will also be training, one as a new instructor, also observed by another experienced trainer.
Every flight is assigned a callsign, and the two aircraft flying today are labeled “Burma Flight”, a pointed reminder of the squadron’s history in the Asian theater of the Second World War. The lead aircraft will be dropping a pair of pallets, one on the ground in a COFF (Combat OFFload), and the other while in the air in a traditional airdrop. In combat situations, Hercules aircrew are expected to be fully proficient on these methods of battlefield supply delivery. The pallets we’ll be flying with are loaded down with weights to simulate an actual load; in battle, they’ll be chock full of ammunition, rations, gear, and other vital necessities for soldiers on the ground. Though C-130s are designed to land virtually anywhere, there are situations which require airdrops – cargo offloaded while in-flight through the rear main door of the aircraft – because landing the aircraft is simply out of the question for safety purposes. The RCAF has been doing this for years, ever since they bought their first C-130 legacy Hercs. Today, I’ll get to see them doing it with the newest technology available to them.
We’re bussed out the flight line, a neat row of dark gray C-130Js sitting quietly before us. I’m going to go up with Burma 2-1, the lead aircraft in the flight. For this run, 2-1 is assigned Fin 601, the very first C-130J delivered to the RCAF… so technically, I’m sitting on a piece of history. But before Fin 601 can be loaded up, it needs to be pre-flighted. As we’re technically flying with three loadmasters today, the three of them go about the preflight together with one observing and the other two executing. It’s rigorous and every minute detail is checked and rechecked. Nothing can be left to chance. It’s not just for the sake of those flying in the Herc, but it’s also for the sake of everyone they support on the ground. If an aircraft is disabled or incapacitated in any way, that puts the soldiers these aircraft are designed to support at a distinct disadvantage, and for the airmen of 436 Squadron, many of whom have and maintain ties to the Canadian Army’s infantry community, failure simply won’t do.
After the loadmasters strap the cargo in using a forklift to help with the lift, a quick lunch and another pre-flight brief later, we’re now in the final prep stages for mission launch. Captains Joe Tufenkdjian and Jeff Moorhouse are Burma 2-1’s aircraft commander (left seat) and first officer (right seat) respectively. Now fully strapped into the jumpseat, it doesn’t take very long for a loud whine to fill the cockpit. We’ve switched to the aircraft’s auxiliary power unit and the ground power unit has been disconnected. A few short minutes later, the aircraft rumbles and vibrates noticeably – the first engine has been fired up and brought to idle. The pilots do the same for each engine in the startup sequence while communicating with air traffic control to get the necessary clearances and
“Burma 2-1, you’re cleared to Runway 06, hold till Burma 2-2 converges.”
Through the right-side windshield, we see Burma 2-2 holding short on a taxiway, ready for the formation takeoff. 2-2 will close in behind us on the runway, entering its takeoff roll when we’re all the way through ours. After lifting off, 2-1 and 2-2 will meet up and maintain that formation all the way through the flight. We begin banking away from Trenton on our climb, farmland falling away below us. But we don’t climb very high as today’s mission is meant to be flown at a low level. Most aircraft as big as the C-130 aren’t built to do this, but the Hercules excels at it. We’ll be flying through valleys, skirting hills and ridges, and we’re doing it through “bad guy country”. That means that everybody on the ground is hostile unless we’re informed otherwise, and they’re trying to kill us.
For any farmers and spring vacationers out there who might’ve heard or seen Burma Flight fly over, don’t worry, you’re not actually hostile combatants. 2-1 and 2-2’s pilots need practice avoiding the most common threat they’d face overseas in a country like Afghanistan – man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS for short. And in no time, we’re under attack. Exactly like the professionals they are, 2-1 and 2-2’s pilots quickly and efficiently respond to these attacks with a variety of tricks up their sleeves, keeping their aircraft and the important cargo in their holds safe and sound, still on track for the drop. Even FedEx couldn’t get delivery done as well as Burma Flight’s about to do it. We fly on through Eastern Ontario, banking sharply low over lakes and rivers, rising over hills when the terrain avoidance system voices its concern with repeated “Terrain, terrain, pull up!” warnings. It’s thoroughly shocking and yet highly comforting at the same time that Capts. Tufenkdjian and Moorhouse are idly chatting about the weather, sports, snowmobiles and vacation home property values while we’re roaring low over Ontario, passing small towns and logging camps in the blink of an eye. Somewhere behind us, at our 5 or 6 o’clock position, is Burma 2-2 doing the same thing. These two pilots are so damned good at their jobs that they make today seem like just another walk in the park for them.
Over the ICS, I hear Capt. Moorhouse talk with one of the loadmasters on the flight. “Reporter wants to get some time on the ramp with his camera, let’s do it. Someone come get him.” He turns around and asks me if I’m okay with the change in plan – originally, we were considering me going out on the ramp after concluding the airdrop, but this plan works better. I flash him a thumbs up and respond affirmatively via the ICS. Hell yes, I’m ready! Having never done this before, I grab the helmet and make for the ladder before anybody changes their mind, not that they will. Master Corporal Jarrod “Jay” Conroy is there to greet me and get me harnessed-up.
I’m still getting my bearings, stumbling through the hold while we’re hitting turbulence every so often. One of the loadmasters helps me into a harness and I put a borrowed flight helmet on, replete with a tinted visor and microphone. Jay and I move to the back of the aircraft and we hook into the floor. Jay disappears from my line of sight to manipulate a set of controls. The ramp soon drops and I start to stumble towards the gaping maw in front of me, forests, rivers and lakes falling behind us quickly. But I don’t have time to be uneasy because I get to feast my eyes on an incredible sight… out of nowhere, Burma 2-2, the second C-130J in the flight swoops into sight, parrying with the winds assaulting it. I’ve never seen or experienced anything like this in my life and my first instinct is to grab my camera. Buffeting winds make taking pictures of the trailing aircraft nearly impossible but I grab a few shots. Jay motions to me to sit down, and I do. At times, we bank so steeply that I need to hold onto the rollers on the floor of the ramp to keep me from shifting down.
We’re zipping along merrily, the second C-130 flying less than 1000 feet behind. The brilliance of the situation I’m in gets to me and I start laughing as though I’ve completely lost my sanity. There I am, sitting on an open-air ramp at the back of an aircraft traveling hundreds of miles an hour in turbulent skies, hooked up to a solitary nylon strap behind me… and I’m having the time of my life! Jay has served in the Canadian Forces for over sixteen years, having begun his career in the military as an enlisted armored infantry soldier in the Canadian Army Reserve; an open ramp of a C-130 is the last place you’d expect to find an armored crewman. However, I look over and I see him casually enjoying the view, a grin stretching from ear to ear. This is just another day at work for him, but the experience never gets old.
The job of a Hercules loadmaster is very involved and challenging. The aircraft essentially becomes the loadmaster’s baby for the duration of the mission. His or her responsibility ranges from helping power the aircraft up from its dormant stage by plugging it into a GPU (a ground power unit), checking the hydraulically-actuated cargo ramp, to calculating weight and balance and appropriately distributing the cargo load to help keep the aircraft at a stable attitude while in-flight. Conroy is known as a combat-qualified loadmaster, meaning that he’s capable of doing his job under the stresses of battle. In fact, he’s already deployed with the C-130J to Afghanistan, having flown strategic airlift missions out there in support of coalition forces on the ground. For him and other airmen, one of the biggest perks of the job isn’t just getting to see the world – which they do a lot of – but it’s getting to fly in ways no ordinary person could ever fathom. “We were over Portugal once, and we dropped the ramp… I was just sitting there admiring the view below me, it was incredible! You don’t see that on a civilian jet … just amazing!” recalls Jay of an RCAF mission that took him to Western Europe and beyond.
We eventually make it back into the hold of the aircraft and Jay closes up the ramp. The C-130J is very similar to every other Herc I’ve ever been in, yet incredibly different. The one I’m on today was one of 17 C-130J-30s purchased by the Canadian Forces in 2008 with deliveries beginning a few years later. The -30 is the longest iteration of the C-130 line, which got its start in the mid-1950s. It possesses a glass cockpit with an array of multifunction displays, two heads up displays (HUDs) which projects important data on a see-through screen in front of the pilots faces, allowing them to keep their eyes outside their aircraft instead of constantly pointed at the cockpit’s instruments, and it only needs a crew of three to function – two pilots and a loadmaster, instead of the older Hercules’s crew of five (a flight engineer and navigator were the other two roles required). It can essentially do everything its predecessors, known as “legacy” Hercs, can do, and more.
I’m back in the cockpit and Capt. Moorhouse chimes in over the comms again: “How was it?” I yell back “Awesome! Can’t wait to do it again!” before I realize I didn’t key my microphone. Moorhouse laughs and resumes paying attention to flying. The C-130J is his first fleet flying assignment in the RCAF, and he’s been at it ever since the Super Hercules entered Canadian service. “It’s a great plane, love it, nothing like it and it’s perfect for the job” says Moorhouse when we land. Having served with the Canadian Forces since 2006, he encourages prospective pilots to consider flying with the RCAF and notes that flight experience has never really been a prerequisite, having never flown an aircraft himself before he joined up. “You get to see and do incredible things … things you would never get to do in a civilian airliner, we get to do in military aircraft. The experience is well worth it.” he says.
We’re still very low over the countryside, but it’s almost time for the highlight of today’s mission – the airdrop, also known as a Cargo Delivery System (CDS) drop. Behind us, in the hold, the loadmasters have rigged up the cargo and they’re ready to do the drop. I clamber back down and am seated towards the front of the hold while Jay and another loadmaster move to the back of the aircraft. The ramp opens and the outside world comes back into focus. We don’t have to wait long, the aircraft’s attitude changes and its nose lifts, angling the hold slightly. Once again, timing is everything and the aircraft commander coordinates with the loadmasters to ensure the drop occurs within seconds of reaching the drop zone, or DZ for short. A load snapping noise briefly permeates my helmet and the pallet rolls towards the mouth of the ramp. A line connecting a parachute rigged to its top surface and a “static line” hooked up inside the Herc plays out and then goes taut. The parachute billows out, arresting the descent of the heavy pallet full of supplies and who-knows-what destined for the DZ we’re now climbing away from. Burma 2-2 does the same and re-enters formation.
It’s almost time for the second feature of today’s show, the COFF. A combat offload is basically what Herc crews do when there’s no forklift around to help unload the aircraft. Similar to the widebody civilian airliners I’ve worked on in the past, the C-130’s cargo hold has rollers on its floor to facilitate the movement of large pallets bearing all sorts of cargo. Crew push the pallets into place, then lock them down using sturdy chains and straps to keep them from shifting; load-shift while in-flight can bring down an aircraft, and that’s the last thing anybody wants. During a COFF, a crew will use Newton’s first law of motion: “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” This basically means that any object sitting at rest will tend to stay that way unless a force is inflicted upon it. In the same way, a COFF involves using the inertia of the heavy pallet in the hold, a rapid forward movement and a sudden brake in order to drop the pallet out the rear, using the rollers to smoothen out the motion. This is exactly what we do upon landing and moving out to a taxiway. The pallet falls away from the C-130, and the ramp closes. In minutes, we’re back up in the air.
The remainder of the flight involves touch-and-go landing practice, which Burma 2-1 executes with ease and precision. We’ll later find out on the bus ride out of the flight line that 2-1 hit their DZ during the airborne drop with absolutely perfect aim – full points. Today, the crews of Burma 2-1 and 2-2 have flown at altitudes so low you can see your shadow chase after you on the ground, clear as day. They’ve outmaneuvered and warded off attacks by ghost teams of enemy combatants, dropped thousands of pounds out the back of the aircraft onto a drop zone with pinpoint accuracy, many feet below us, and hurled another thousand pounds out the back of the Hercules upon landing as though that’s a totally normal thing for any aircraft to be able to do. Today, Burma Flight has done things no ordinary aircraft or aircrew is capable of without even breaking a sweat. This is all in a day’s work for the highly professional aviators of Canada’s only Super Hercules tactical airlift squadron.
A huge thanks to Lt. Karyn Mazurek of 8 Wing, the members of 436 Squadron, and the crews of Burma 2-1 and 2-2 for their graciousness in hosting me, entertaining my incessant questions with patience, and tolerating my constant photography! Allowing me to observe what you do in service of your country was both an honor and a privilege!