Tech. Sgt. Kristy Decker knows no flight in this region is predictable.
With nearly two decades of flying under her belt, the Reserve loadmaster is serving her first tour of duty with the 746th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron in Southwest Asia. To date, she has flown into Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa more than 20 times.
The other half of this loadmaster team is Master Sgt. Thomas Freeman. Both he and Sergeant Decker are from the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.
Together, they play a critical role in the C-130 Hercules mission. Sergeants Freeman and Decker accomplish preflight checks of aircraft, making sure all equipment is working. Then they supervise the loading of the aircraft, including cargo and passengers. They calculate the weight and balance of the cargo so the aircraft can safely fly.
Loadmasters provide the pilot with precise weight and balance calculations to determine the planes center of gravity, said Maj. Brian Tallent, 746th assistant director of operations. This is key to ensuring the aircraft flies.
On a recent mission to Baghdad, the loadmasters had to juggle multiple responsibilities throughout the evening. Their first stop was the airport in Bahrain.
One passenger departed the aircraft in Bahrain. As the troop walked off the plane, Sergeants Decker and Freeman supervised the loading of three pallets, weighing more than 4,000 pounds each onto the C-130.
Meanwhile, more passengers boarded. Their luggage followed on pallets. The aircraft took off for Iraq, carrying communications equipment, a 2,000-pound air compressor, and 1,500 pounds of compressed air and chemicals.
Nighttime descents into Iraq kept the loadmasters busy. They peered through the windows, scouring the sky through night-vision goggles, looking for signs of enemy fire.
Dim green lights illuminated the interior of the plane with an iridescent glow. Normal white lights block out the night vision goggles, while the soft green ones allow aircrew unimpeded vision.
Maj. Eric Hall, the aircraft commander, and co-pilot Maj. Jim Travis maneuvered the aircraft using a tactical approach to evade possible enemy fire. Approaches in Iraq are complex because of the airspace surrounding the airports, other traffic and enemy threats.
The (airspace) is saturated, Major Hall said. Its within close vicinity of other airfields, and theres almost always something military-related going on down on the ground that requires combat air support. This, in turn, affects traffic in and out of Iraq.
On the ground, the passengers departed the plane, walking single file away from the aircraft. Meanwhile, the loadmasters directed forklift drivers as they lifted the three pallets into darkness.
Col. Dennis Ployer, 447th Air Expeditionary Group Commander, greeted the aircrew. The conversation turned serious as the colonel told the crew they would be carrying human remains out of Baghdad that night.
The crew had flown similar missions in the past.
But every time its painful, Sergeant Decker said.
The aircrew and other passengers quietly filed in the back of the C-130, lining both sides of the aircraft interior. The officer of the day called the servicemembers to attention, the group saluted and six Airmen silently carried the flag-draped coffin up the ramp of the C-130.
They carefully set the casket down. An American flag tightly covered the coffin, folded precisely at the corners and held in place by parachute cord.
More than 30 Airmen, Soldiers and Sailors followed the casket onto the aircraft. Few, if any, knew the fallen American. Yet, they all volunteered to pay final honors by escorting the remains to the aircraft.