JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. --
The powerful vibrations of four engines propelling a 282,400 pound aircraft several miles above the ground hum across the cargo bay of a C-17 Globemaster III on its way to drop off much needed cargo.
Two pilots sit upstairs in the flight deck guiding the C-17 through the sky while another two rest along with the flying crew chiefs. Awake are three loadmasters, keeping an eye on the cargo bay while Airman 1st Class Kam Watt studies the loadmaster Air Force Instructions (AFI).
The flight marked Watt’s, a 4th Airlift Squadron (4th AS) loadmaster's, “dollar ride” - his first overseas mission. For loadmasters, this marks the mission that, if they meet all the requirements, will make them a fully-qualified, mission-ready loadmaster.
“He’s able to fly by himself, but typically for about the first year he’ll fly with a more experienced primary loadmaster,” said Master Sgt. Andrew Reilly, 4th AS operations superintendent evaluator loadmaster.
A loadmaster is responsible for the on-load, securing and off-load of any cargo on board an aircraft, as well as any passengers who may be flying. They communicate with pilots in the flight deck upstairs and work as a team to achieve mission success.
Though Watt has been in the Air Force less than two years, there’s a lot that has led up to this point in his short career.
He enlisted in the Air Force in September 2018, right after graduating high school in Rochester, New York.
“I think around 6th grade is when I knew I was going to join,” Watt said. With his grandpa having served in the Air Force and his father in the Coast Guard, he had an example of what military service looked like growing up.
At first, he had no idea what a loadmaster was, but he knew he wanted to fly.
After graduating Basic Military Training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, new Airmen go to technical school for their respective career field training. Some go to schools in different states, but loadmasters remain at Lackland for their first stop in training - the Aircrew Fundamentals and Basic Loadmaster Course. Upon graduation, they are sent to Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training for a couple weeks of camping, but not the fun kind.
The last stop before their first duty station is Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, for completion of their loadmaster initial qualification course.
“These Airmen come to us already qualified to fly and they only need mission-ready upgrade, which is why they only fly one or two sorties under instructor supervision and then they’re released into the wild,” said Chief Master Sgt. Chris Copans, 4th AS chief enlisted manager and instructor loadmaster. “Which is a significantly more challenging training profile for these young Airmen than I had coming in as a C-5 Galaxy loadmaster several years ago.”
When Watt arrived at the 4th AS in September 2019, he was immediately welcomed into his new unit.
“I definitely saw the family-type dynamic,” Watt said. “Everybody is always coming up to you and asking how they can help or if you need anything. And it’s genuine; it’s not just because that’s what they’re told to do.”
It was a little more than a month before Watt went on his first local sortie flight with an instructor supervisor, but after that he was qualified to fly locals by himself.
“[During] every local I try to learn at least one thing that’s new, it’s the first stage of upgrading,” Watt said. “And if I’m by myself, I like to take that opportunity to try and ask pilots things that I can’t always do when there’s another loadmaster and we’re just focusing on loadmaster topics.”
On Dec. 15, 2019, Watt, along with an aircrew of eight other Airmen, took off from Joint Base Lewis-McChord for his dollar ride, a seven-day mission dropping off two different loads of cargo and transporting troops to deployed locations.
During the hours on the aircraft flying from one location to another, Reilly and Watt reviewed loadmaster AFI’s and flight manuals.
“With one-on-one training, if you don’t study, it’s completely obvious as soon as you start getting questions and you have no one to help you out,” Reilly said. “We went over a lot of Q&A and he was able to look up and reference anything he didn’t know.”
There is so much to learn on the jet, Reilly continued. Every time a loadmaster flies there is something new to learn and figure out.
The loadmaster training programs are centered on an individual’s initiative.
“They need to be able to assess their own weaknesses, seek out additional training and find out what they need to do to fix any deficiencies in their abilities,” Copans said. “This job is a challenge, but it’s incredibly rewarding and you will benefit exponentially based on how much you put into it.”
Watt has seen more countries in the short time since he arrived at JBLM than most people will see in their lifetimes, but even more significant than that, he gets to see the end result of the missions Airmen at home base directly contribute to. Loadmasters see supplies they helped deliver put into the hands of people who need them and sometimes may even see the results of their actions on the news.
Like any, it is a vital role in the overall mission of the U.S. Air Force.