Overhead, a Critical Mission in Progress
The low rumble is felt long before it’s heard. At home in the Arkansas sky, the sound of the C-130’s powerful engines are the prelude to the sight of the massive US Air Force planes flying overhead. Sometimes, there may be only one; other times as many as six.
Little Rock Air Force Base is home to the largest C-130 training facility in the United States. The planes clock in 15,600 yearly hours of flight time to train pilots, co-pilots, navigators, flight engineers and loadmasters to become ready to carry everything from helicopters, six-wheeled armored vehicles, pallets of supplies, to combat troops and paratroopers into combat zones.
Recently, I was invited to tour the Blackjack Mountain drop zone, 300 mowed acres in a remote area of the state. Here is where ground crew are trained to give instruction to the C-130 flight crews for successful drops.
As would be expected, it’s windy at the top of the mountain, so the ground crew sends up a balloon to test the velocity and direction. As a safeguard, the Air Force leased surface rights to roughly 18 additional acres around the perimeter of the 300 acre drop zone, though it is hardly necessary.
“In the past year, of the approximately 6,000 drops at Blackjack Drop Zone,” said Air Force Public Affairs Specialist Arlo Taylor, “three have landed off the drop zone – that’s hitting the drop zone with a more than 99 percent accuracy rate. Our aircrews and logistics professionals strive for excellence.”
While at the drop zone, the C-130s came in at 20 to 30 minute intervals. Each pass was different planes dropping various practice cargo. The four objects dropped out of this particular plane were weights calculated to simulate paratroopers. Others were small sandbags with mini parachutes. The biggest objects are 4,000 pound pallets that simulate supply drops of bottled water, though I didn’t see one dropped that day.
Expectations are high. If I recall correctly, a drop is considered successful only if it falls within so many yards of the orange target, and I believe that number was 250. It might have been feet, but while I was there, nothing fell out of sight of that target. Impressive!
Once the objects hit, the ground crew is in motion. The practice cargo is picked up and placed on a flatbed truck. The parachutes are wrapped and loaded onto the bed of a pickup. At the end of the day, everything is hauled back to base and prepared to drop again. Nothing is left behind.
Interestingly, though the C-130s flew overhead at a relatively low altitude, no matter how many there were, the roar of the powerful engines was never too loud to drown out our conversation. I found that the wind in my ears was far more of a distraction than the planes were.
At a little past 8:00 p.m. every night, the C-130s fly over my home near Searcy. Like a little kid, I’ll stand outside and wave as the airmen pass overhead, in hopes that they can see me and know of my appreciation of them.
But, the planes had stopped flying over. I took advantage of my trip to the drop zone to half-jokingly complain. That night, the planes were once again flying over my home, and I was back out waving away.
I want to extend my deepest gratitude to the Air Force for inviting me to tour the drop zone and learn more about the “beautiful whales,” as the Master Sergeant called the C-130. I came away with a far deeper appreciation for the mission critical training in progress, every time the massive, beautiful planes fly over.
Be safe, airmen!
White County resident, freelance writer, photographer and blogger. Email her, visit her at A Bumpy Path and Out in the Back Yard for more neurotic enlightenment and visual stimulation.