A Day in the Life of a Deployed C-17A Pilot

  • Published
  • By Maj Joshua Zaker
  • 62nd Airlift Wing command post chief
Last summer I deployed as a C-17A Aircraft Commander. While deployed, I felt a deep responsibility to the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines that depend on airlift for their survival. I was impressed by the complexity of the war's logistics, by the professionalism and dedication of the Airmen who move the "beans and bullets" into Afghanistan on a daily basis. I wanted to capture this feeling on paper so I could share it with my wife. What's written is from an email I sent to her while I was deployed. It's my attempt to explain to her what I do and how I am privileged to serve this great country of ours.
The cargo we move every day is usually too big or heavy to be airlifted by a different kind of airplane. I have carried everything from heavy construction equipment to giant armored vehicles to blood to pallets of high explosive artillery shells. Each cargo load presents its own challenges; I have seen fuel trucks backed onto the airplane--inch by inch--with barely a half an inch between them.

To maximize the usefulness of the airplane, you take off as heavy as possible. If you leave cargo in the cargo yard, you just have to pick it up tomorrow. To do this, you do a balancing act. The temperature and runway length and air pressure all change your maximum takeoff weight--you have to be able to climb out above any obstacles if you lose an engine precisely when the airplane rotates to become airborne. So, you don't want to be too heavy to take off and you don't want to waste cargo capacity.
After you decide how much fuel you need to make it through the day, you calculate a maximum cargo weight. You have to be able to stop the weight of the airplane and all your cargo and fuel within the length of the runway and without overheating your brakes.

And then there is time. Cargo capacity and fuel limit you every day, but time is what drives you. Airlift lives and breathes on time. Every takeoff and landing is tracked to the minute. You have a slot time into and out of Afghanistan. You cannot be early or late for your slot time because the slot before you and the slot after you are for the airplane in front of you and the airplane behind you.
Then there is Maximum Aircraft on the Ground. When you are utilizing airplanes as big as C-17s, you run out of parking spots quickly. You don't take off until your parking spot down range is coordinated and your entry time into country is set. The logistics of war are exceedingly complex; every piece of cargo has a priority number, every parking spot has a reservation, and the airways are de-conflicted by tightly adhered-to time and altitude constraints.

In order to make it through the day, you are always thinking ahead. Every free moment you are building a game plan for your next stop.
When everything is humming along, the system works beautifully: the flight crew is alerted on time; the aircraft that the crew is to fly is arriving back from its previous mission; it is unloaded, fueled, and uploaded with new cargo. Late takeoffs, maintenance delays and cargo uploading problems all threaten to make the logistics machine break down. One airplane's late takeoff might affect 10 other missions throughout the day. When this happens, cargo is shuffled, slot times are re-coordinated, parking spots shifted and the missions are moved.

After the airplane blocks in and the engines are shut down, the massive cargo door and ramp at the aft of the aircraft is opened, and the climate-controlled environment gives in to the hot and dusty desert.

Ground stops feel like a NASCAR pit stop--the airplane is swarmed by people with different specialties. One person will come up to you and ask you how much fuel you need for the next leg. Another person will ask about any maintenance issues and will take his team to go fix them. A team will start removing the chains that restrain the cargo while a forklift and a special machine called a K-loader will pull up behind the airplane to start receiving the cargo for download. Someone will hand you a manila envelope with specific information about the cargo you will carry back, weights calculated to the pound, and every piece fit in like a puzzle piece in the diagram. A passenger services representative will ask you what time you will be ready to receive your passengers. Radio and phone calls are made, slot times are updated, fuel and cargo are unloaded, flight plans filed, passengers briefed.

And then you take off again.