McChord wing takes flight

ABOARD A C-17 GLOBEMASTER III ON A RUNWAY IN THE MIDDLE EAST — We landed in 80-degree heat at a staging air base in a location that can’t be disclosed for diplomatic reasons.

A base official boarded the large aircraft and welcomed us. The air temperature outside is cool now, he said, because the local time is about 9:30 p.m. He promised 100-degree temperatures by Monday afternoon.

This is the third day of my one-week journey with airmen from McChord Air Force Base as they shuttle equipment, supplies and troops to and from Iraq. I’ll be dispatching reports from Balad Air Base, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, as well as air bases in Germany.

The airmen I flew with today are reservists with the 446th Airlift Wing. They fly out for two weeks at a time, their missions lasting 18 to 24 hours, followed by mandatory 16-hour intervals of rest. Then they return to McChord for a two-week reprieve.

“It gets very tiring. When you get done, you don’t know what time it is,” said Lt. Col. Eric Newhouse, 44, of Tacoma, a C-17 pilot who is an airline pilot as a civilian. “When you get back home, for those first few days, you sleep during the day and you’re up during the middle of the night.”

Complicated operation

The war effort in Iraq now depends heavily on these flights, as the military has shifted away from moving cargo on the ground because of the threat of ambushes and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, to convoys. The C-17 crews haul cargo daily from bases in Germany, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq, and the multimillion-dollar planes rarely are idle on the tarmac for more than a few hours.

“It’s the most complicated airlift operation in the history of aviation,” Newhouse said.

“It’s about as far from the U.S. as we can get, with some of the most remote airfields and some of the most rugged terrain,” he said.

My trip began Friday at McChord, where I was issued a helmet, flak vest, canteen, belt, poncho and first-aid kit. The Air Force also provided several heavy-duty bottles of DEET to keep away the sand flies and other monster insects indigenous to the Middle East. I won’t need the flak vest until I get to Balad in a few days. But the bug repellant might turn out to be more valuable now. The insect-borne infections prevalent in Iraq, such as “leishmaniasis,” don’t sound like fun.

Today, we were supposed to fly briefly into Baghdad International, where the air crew was slated to drop off supplies. But the missions change frequently, as did our flight plan, and we’re headed directly for our current location. We’re scheduled to spend a day here before flying to Balad.

Newhouse, a 22-year Air Force veteran who has flown C-17s since 2001, said flying into Iraq is less tense now than it was at the onset of the war. He said he’s more concerned now about colliding with another aircraft than being shot down by insurgents. The air traffic control system in Iraq is getting up to par with radar.

He sees more lights in the cities when flying in at night now, which he said shows progress in restoring the country’s shoddy electricity.

‘A proven workhorse’

The C-17 Globemaster III has a wingspan of 169 feet and can carry up to 170,900 pounds. It’s hard to understand how something that large is able to soar at 35,000 feet above the earth. Its four engines roar during takeoff, and I could barely hear my thoughts here in the cargo bay. With the noise and cool temperature, it felt like I was sitting in a giant wind tunnel.

The C-17, the newest of cargo aircraft, has some of the latest in hydraulic and computer equipment and can land on short runways, Newhouse said.

“This plane is a blast to fly,” Newhouse said. “It’s a proven workhorse.”

C-17s require a minimum crew of two pilots and one loadmaster, although the crew I’m with is “augmented” with two additional members.

Loading the plane is as much a chore as flying it. Loadmasters, a role filled by enlisted crew members, are responsible for getting the cargo bay loaded and ensuring it is secured and its weight evenly distributed. That can get tricky when crews are hauling pallets of supplies and military vehicles such as Abrams tanks or Humvees, said Master Sgt. Steve Chatnick, a 42-year-old loadmaster from Tacoma.

On a seven-hour flight from the United States to Germany, a loadmaster might not have much to do but mitigate boredom. The stress comes when trying to load and unload quickly on an airfield in a place like Balad, where mortar shells routinely are lobbed into the base, he said.

“That really gets the adrenalin going a little bit,” Chatnick said. “We’re trying to get everything off and get out of there fast. The longer we’re on the ground, the longer we’re a target.”

Heading home

Chatnick, a 23-year Air Force veteran with 13 years in the Reserves, has twice volunteered for tours. As a civilian, he’s a locomotive engineer for Union Pacific, he said.

While airmen mostly are thousands of feet above what’s happening on the ground, many feel close to their comrades in the Army and Marines. The most emotional missions are when the planes are taking soldiers home, Chatnick said.

“The coolest thing, though, is hauling Army troops back into the States,” he said. “I’ll get on the headset and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you are now officially out of Iraq,’ and they go nuts.”

But then there are times when the soldiers are returning in coffins draped in U.S. flags.

Chatnick recounted one day in early 2005 when he loaded the bodies of an airman, a soldier and a Marine into the front of the cargo bay, as required by protocol, and inadvertently read the paperwork documenting their deaths.

Chatnick, who had been jovial through much of our conversation, turned more somber for a moment and explained how he learned the soldier had been driving a truck when an IED exploded directly beneath him.

He said he now avoids reading the death reports that accompany soldiers’ remains.

“It was the first and last time,” he said.

“I’m pretty much glad that it’s not what I’m doing and that I’m not driving a truck down in Baghdad.”

Reporter Scott Gutierrez,29, is accompanying airmen out of McChord Air Force Base on their mission to deliver equipment and troops to and from Iraq. He'll be reporting this week from air bases in Iraq, Qatar and Germany and from aboard a military C-17 Globemaster III aircraft.