Michael's Dispatches

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61 Comments

Kandahar, Afghanistan
08 February 2010

American troops are spread widely across Afghanistan.  Some are remote and accessibility is difficult.  In 2008, I was with six soldiers in Zabul Province who didn’t even get mail for three months.  They had no email.  They were on the moon.  Six courageous men, in the middle of nowhere, and their nearest backup was a small Special Forces team about five hours away.  Resupply to these small outposts is crucial, difficult, and would require major effort by ground.  Enter the United States Air Force.

Tonight’s mission was to fly from Kandahar Airfield (KAF) to Bagram Airfield (BAF), pick up specially rigged bundles of fuel and ammunition and parachute those to American forces up near the border of Turkmenistan.

The aircraft would be a C-130J.  The C-130 variants have been around so long that Captain Fred Flintstone may have been the first pilot.  They’ve seen more than fifty years of service.  The aircraft is so good that nobody wants to shed them, so the Air Force simply continues to upgrade a great old horse.  Dozens of countries fly dozens of variants today.

The latest and greatest for general use is the C-130J.  You can spot a “J” from the older variants by looking at the propellers.  Each propeller has six high-tech blades, allowing the aircraft to carry more weight with greater economy.  In Afghanistan, with the “high hot” conditions, pilots say the J can carry 2-3 times more cargo than older variants.

The C-130 crews in Afghanistan have many crucial missions, though the U.S. crews are proud to say that some of their friends are working Haiti.  Here in Afghanistan, they perform such missions as resupply by parachute, or often landing on rough, remote airstrips.  They recover bodies of our lost troops and fly the remains back to base.  The Js can actually carry a firetruck or two fully armored Humvees, which is pretty impressive considering a single Humvee door weighs more than 400 pounds.

Before takeoff, the two pilots go through long checklists using a lot of terms that are unfamiliar to me.  Sounds like a space launch. (They seated me in the cockpit -- which they call the “flight deck” -- wearing a headset, and so I can hear and see it all.)  The flight deck is so big that even giant Dutch people could stand up and take a step or two with no problems.  There is even a bunk bed behind us.

Some things are easy to understand, “Engine number two,” “flaps,” “brakes,” but they go over the checklist so quickly that my pen has no more chance of following than a sparrow could follow a hawk.

Finally, after several long checklists, we start taxiing to the runway.  We got held up by ATC (Air Traffic Control) when the tower spotted two scrawny dogs crossing the runway.  The pilots scanned but didn’t see them, and finally 1LT April Brown, in the right seat, said, “There they are,” pointed, and Captain John Holland, left seat, got eyes on.  The dogs held up this part of the war for about a minute before trotting away, and then the fighter jets and others kept roaring away.

The small pieces of glass in front of each pilot are called “HUDs”, or Heads Up Displays.  Pilots say the HUDs are great because they can keep their eyes out the windows while still seeing critical information without looking down at the instrument panel.  Notice through the left HUD, a fighter jet is roaring down the runway.  (Just after the dogs left.)  My quarters on KAF are straight ahead past the far side of the runway, so it’s pretty loud here day and night.  Helicopters, C-130s, jets of all sorts.  The enemy has been firing more rockets onto the base, causing some casualties, but to my knowledge have destroyed no aircraft.  Years ago, the Mujahidin more or less ran the Soviet Air Force out of Kandahar with their rocket attacks.  The “Muj” once shot down a Soviet general, captured him, but killed him before they realized they had a general.  Today, the enemy shoots at lot with SAFIRE (Surface to Air Fire) at aircraft and sometimes sparkle the pilots with lasers.  If there is a surface to air missile threat, it’s not presented itself.

The pilots throttle up and we rumble away.  There are actually three pilots aboard and the other is sitting behind me, or down in the cargo bay.  It takes about eighteen months to learn how to fly this aircraft.  One year of pilot training, then six months of training on the C-130J.  Captain Holland said the pilot training is pretty tough, but by the time you get to the C-130 school, you are in the study groove and it gets a bit easier.

That’s Lieutenant April Brown in the right seat.  She’s from San Diego and it’s obvious she loves flying.  After we got up into the darkness, she asked Captain John Holland, left seat, to take the controls so she could snap on her night vision goggles.  They see a lot of shooting stars up here, artillery illumination missions, and other aircraft.

They were kind enough to issue me a set of goggles for the mission, but the helmet and that type of goggles were alien to me so later a helpful loadmaster helped fit the goggles on the helmet and adjusted them.

There is a heck of a lot of air traffic up here, especially near the main airfields.  Over the radio, pilots could be heard with accents that seemed to come from all over the world, talking to air traffic control about headings, altitude, and other matters such as the length of available runway.  Predators and other “drones,” which are always looking down, keep their lights on so that pilots don’t plough into one.

The crew has parachutes in case the aircraft becomes uncontrollable.  I asked a pilot how in the heck he was going to get into a parachute if the airplane was out of control.  Bottom line: at least one pilot is going to have to ride the plane in while the crew gets out.

The first leg of the mission took us to Bagram Airfield (BAF), which must be one of the busiest airports in the world.   BAF is madhouse of traffic and they also take a little rocket fire at times.  The rocket fire is not a big deal, though we do take some KIA and wounded.  On the scale of the war, it’s like mosquito bites.  A nuisance you could do without, but trivial when taken to scale.

To avoid SAFIRE, pilots turn on the landing lights during the last few seconds.

So they taxi behind the “FOLLOW ME,” and we roll by all sorts of jets and helicopters.

And then we park, and go to grab take-away dinners at a nearby DFAC (dining facility) while the airplane is loaded with the supplies that are to be parachuted later tonight.

Twenty pallets weighing a total of about 32,000 pounds are rolled into the cargo bay.  The loadmasters have special training and much responsibility.  If they make a mistake, passengers can be hurt, the aircraft can be damaged, and it could even crash.  Each pallet has information posted on the side, including gross weight.  Before the pallets are loaded, they already have been arranged in the proper order, and a loadmaster then programs in the weights of the pallets and their anchor locations into the C-130J’s computer.  This calculates the CG, or Center of Gravity, which must be within specified constraints.  The computer calculates the gross weight of the aircraft, which is the net aircraft weight, plus fuel, plus cargo.  Gross weight for this mission would be about 150,000lbs.

In addition to the loadmaster's heavy responsibilities, the riggers who “build” these pallets and attach the parachutes must be on their job.  They call this a CDS, or container delivery system, and they said it’s using LCADS “low cost air delivery system” parachutes that are relatively cheap and do not need to be turned in.  Whereas parachutes for our soldiers nearly always open, the pallets are more likely to burn in (though they seldom do).  This happened once when I was with the British in Iraq, sending us all diving to the dark, desert floor while we heard the pallet screaming in, and then practically explode when it hit the ground.  The honey comb on the bottom is a shock absorber.  Some of the containers carry ammo.  I asked the pilots about the dangers of parachuting relief aid into places like Haiti (remembering when some Kurds were killed by bundles), and they confirmed the dangers.  Problem is, the people you are trying to help are desperate – hence the willingness to use dangerous means to feed them -- and so when they see the parachutes floating down, the hungry people rush to catch them, not realizing these things are very heavy and coming down very fast, and then people get crushed and we get blamed for killing people with love.  The pilots try to drop far enough away that people don’t get crushed.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Rob Thiessen · 8 years ago
    Michael,

    Thanks so much for the insight of our military. You help us all have more appreciation for our mission there.

    Rob
  • This commment is unpublished.
    dennis · 8 years ago
    awesome post Michael!! always wanted to know how they do that.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Karl · 8 years ago
    Thanks, Michael! Great story, great pics.
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    Suzanne · 8 years ago
    I just finished reading Craig Mullaney's "The Unforgiving Moment" - and if any of you non-military readers want to understand what our soldiers go through to train to be leaders of our brave troops, this is one to add in addition to Michael's book. It describes Mullaney's education for leadership at West Point, including Airborne and Ranger training, and then his duty in Afghanistan when that war was very much forgotten - in 2003. Now's the time to read it to understand how much we need to support and be thankful for our troops in Afghanistan. I have no financial interest at all in recommending this book. I just think Mullaney's book is one of the best I've read, and was lauded by Gen Petraeus et al.

    Thank you, Michael, for all that you're doing, and I hope that this recommendation for the education of the American public doesn't seem like a detriment to your book sales.! Be safe, Suzanne
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kimberly Carvalho · 8 years ago
    Michael-What a wonderful story and insight to this piece of the war. The pics are great. What a wonderful team of pilots and other assistants. We definitely couldn't get through this war without them. Please be safe and keep up the most excellent reporting! And please pass along my thanks and prayers to them.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ryo · 8 years ago
    Another wonderful post. Thank you for putting yourself in harms way to get us these great interesting stories.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    brityank · 8 years ago
    Many thanks for the information and explanations you provide to go along with these great pictures illustrating your stories. I wish I could give more to help defray your costs and provide for your dispatches, but I would ask that everyone who reads and follows your reports hits your Support Button above and add to the kitty.

    Stay safe, friend.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jan D · 8 years ago
    Michael, I know you hear this all the time, but you unquestionably have a "God given" talent. Your photography is not only always incredible, but you have an innate ability to bring life to each photo in such a natural way of storytelling. So often you capture little things that would otherwise go unnoticed. In the picture of your final approach to Bagram Airfield, inadvertently or not, the white lighted cross is conspicuously dead-on center. I’m familiar with the red/green lights used for landing, but I don’t recall the white lighted cross. Not sure if this is unique to this airfield, nonetheless it presents a spiritual quality. Probably just me being crazy, but I love it, as well as all of your other photos.

    Your stories always leave me with so much pride for our soldiers and for what they do and how they do it. They are so intelligent … so poised … so focused … so dedicated … and so confident in the execution of their duties. Difficult to say enough good things about them.

    With heartfelt thanks to you and all of our soldiers. I'm eternally grateful.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Steve Graves · 8 years ago
    Wouldn't it be great if many of the troops that you write about would run for and win election to national office - after their retirement from the military?

    If we could only replace a goodly portion of the self-centered, greedy, hyper-partisan miscreants presently serving in D.C. with people of the caliber that you describe in your postings. . . what a better place this nation would be!

    Thank you again for your always informative news from the battlefront. As for the photography, what can I say other than it is the best GWOT coverage that I have found anywhere on the internet.

    May the Lord keep an eye on you and those you are serving with. And now - off to PayPal to send you another pittance for your monthly care and grooming.
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    Anthony Rock · 8 years ago
    Thanks Mike...a lot of folks just don't know what our AF is doing to contribute on a daily basis. Whether it is delivery of ammo and medical supplies or delivery of hot metal on target, we are in it for the long haul. My dad was an Army infantryman and used to say, "There is no bigger proponent of air power than a troop in contact." Good luck as you return to the tough slog on the ground and keep telling the story of our warriors on the front line of freedom.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Larry Farkash · 8 years ago
    Great blog and wonderful photos. Thank you for all you do and report.
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    staghounds · 8 years ago
    What a joy to see the pride in those faces! Thank you!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Craven · 8 years ago
    Michael,

    As the father of a young Marine who is scheduled to deploy later this year, your "boots on the ground" perspective is extremely helpful. I was concerned, however by your account of the small team of six soldiers who were isolated for so long. Is this normal and what kind of "strategy" exposes our troops in this way other than using them as "bait" for the enemy? Any further insights would be appreciated. Thanks again for all you do!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mark Stephens · 8 years ago
    Another great report, Mike. Thanks. Come on, people, hit that tip jar!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Marina Freeman · 8 years ago
    Thanks for the great report and amazing photos. I see my friends over there in their faces. This makes me very proud of our AF.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gabe Campbell · 8 years ago
    Mike, It was nice having you along for the ride on our mission. You definitely have a way of accurately decribing things in ways that I haven't thought of.....I see why you're such a successful writer. Thanks for the kind words. Keep your head on a swivel.
    Sincerely,
    Gabe
    P.S. It was a pleasure to help you with your NOGs.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Eddy Williams · 8 years ago
    Man, this was such a cool article! It must have been so neat seeing all the work and precision that goes into a job that probably very few people back home think about, or all the work that goes into it. Thanks, Michael.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Victoria · 8 years ago
    Another great report, thanks Mike. I really enjoy it when you include photo's of our troops, I am so proud of them and so proud to be an American, it would be an honor if I happen to meet any one of them some day. Be safe to all of you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    PJ · 8 years ago
    From San Jose, thank you Michael for the post and thanks to the 772 EAS for doing such an excellent job.
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    Dave Carlton · 8 years ago
    A slight twist on words came to me as I used to fly as a gunner in the AC-130A Spectre gunships back in '72 which were nick named the 'Fabulous Four Engine Fighter" A great job on the C-130J, I have not had the privlege yet of flying in one but have heard the are light years ahead of the technology we had in the olden days.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    mike h · 8 years ago
    Mike,keep up the great work! Tell all of our brave warriors we support all that they do. I am sending more $$ your way.. Stay safe!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Esther · 8 years ago
    Michael,

    Because of your eye for detail, your maps, upclose photography and commentary makes me feel as if I am actually there! You are excellent at what you do...stay safe and healthy and may God bless you and our brave soldiers.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bob Tolford · 8 years ago
    It is amazing what a change in propellers has done for the C-130.
    I took a ride from the Panama Canal Zone to Tacoma, Washington in 1976 along with 20 others from B-Btry, 22nd FA. We went up there to train on different howitzers than the 105mm, towed guns we had in the CZ. It was a Loooong flight!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Fits · 8 years ago
    Semper Fi, Michael.
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    Renee C. · 8 years ago
    Michael, I don't know how you do it, but I'm never disappointed when I read your stuff. I found this fascinating! Thanks to you and all these brave men and women who are putting everything on the line for the rest of us.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Norm Sevigny · 8 years ago
    Mike
    Thanks from a retired Viet Nam era USAF C-130 driver and the father of a retired Somolia, Kosovo, Saudi, Afghanistan, USAF C-130 driver (how old do I feel). The airlift "trash haulers"always took great pride in our work.
    It's nice to see the "kids" continuing the tradition.
    Keep up your great reporting.
    Norm
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Robert · 8 years ago
    I love reading the articles and living vicariously through them. I would love to be able to ride with our men and women in uniform and photograph them as they do their jobs and write about them as you do! Keep up the good work.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Keith H · 8 years ago
    Michael
    Awesome pictures and 'down to earth' reporting from the 'sharp end'! Our son is an FST commander on the ground (we called them 'Brown Jobs') and I know they really appreciate what the 'Blue Jobs' do for them! Blessings, Keith
  • This commment is unpublished.
    TJ · 8 years ago
    It is hard to imagine what our husbands/spouses go through while overseas. We get an email here, a phone call there, maybe a short webcam session to tie us over until the next time our loved one has a moment (and a good electronic connection) available. And we sit, and we wait, and we pray. But those precious communications are never about the mission they were sent there to do. So thank you, Michael, for helping us SEE what our men and women actually do THERE, while we are HERE, at home, shoveling the snow, mowing the lawn and single parenting the children. Military spouses are ever proud and ever hopeful, but having a window into what they go through on a daily basis, well, as cliche as it may sound...that's just priceless!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Donn · 8 years ago
    Please do not print any more maps with troop locations on them.
    thank you very much
    Don
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Terry in Georgia USA · 8 years ago
    Thank you for the great pictures and descriptions that show us what a wonderful job all our troops are doing. Please make sure to tell this crew and all our heroes that we love them, we truly appreciate their service and sacrifice, and that we are so very proud of all they do. Not everyone back home ridicules this service -- in fact I can assure you that most of us still think of this as the greatest country on the planet and know that we have all of you to thank for fighting the bad guys over there while we fight the bad guys here.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Inigo · 8 years ago
    Lovely pics and captions! Please post more! All those Bozos in Washington think it is all about them when it is really people like these USAF personnel that make things happen.

    Thanks!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    MAJ R · 8 years ago
    Great stuff, Michael, as always. Glad to know you are back, so we can get some accurate news from that Theater. I have less and less faith in the MSM as time passes.
    And for Don--
    It is only OPSEC if it is information the enemy doesn't know. The locations on the map are the AIRBASES, ferchrissake. Do you really think the talibs don't kow where they are?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Rick554 · 8 years ago
    Great pics of our USAF Micheal ! Thanks for telling their story. And GOD bless the Crews
    Keep 'em flying AIR FORCE!
    A Proud Parent of a SOLDIER
  • This commment is unpublished.
    IronKnight · 8 years ago
    "it was great to be back with winners"
    I knew their were no athiests or politicians in a foxhole (the later only applying to the qoute).
    I am glad to know this extends upward into flight decks (read cockpit for the rest of us).

    Thank you Mr. Yon.
    You do your country proud
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    Mortarman11c · 8 years ago
    Great article, but with a correction. Those are not "pallets" but Container Delivery Systems. "Bundles." Each bundle can hold up to 2000 pounds of whatever you can fit itno it.

    How do I know? I have seven combat airdrops over Afghanistan as a C-17 Airdrop loadie.

    Great job ya Herc pukes!!! The four fan trash can mafia has done the AF proud!!!

    MM11C
    Paratrooper/C-17 Loadmaster
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Rob Jacob · 8 years ago
    Michael Yon - you are a national treasure. I true professional patriot of the highest order. Thank you for you posts from the field, and please always thanks the men and women who serve. Your posts raise the pride inside this American each and every time I read them. You're a great man.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Chuck Norris · 8 years ago
    In the past ths Air Force never got the recognition it so rightfully deserved. Great article. Please continue so the home front will know what a valiant group of WARRIORS we have.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ing · 8 years ago
    Fantastic, Michael as always. Make sure, everyone, to thank a military person every time you see him/her for the service to the nation.

    BTW, the Mullaney book is "The Unforgiving Minute" for anyone looking it up.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    dj · 8 years ago
    Air-BORNE, bruther! Still gives me goose-pimples. Gawd I love the military!

    Libruls just ain't a'gonna get it. EVER. It sure ain't the PAY...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michele · 8 years ago
    What an amazing story. I have had many family members in the Air Force and my son is in right now as Security Forces in the Air Force. Your coverage is very much appreciated and I thank you for taking the time to write this story and to let everyone know what these men and women do for our country. We are so proud of them and we are so proud of the men and women who have served our country and died for our country so that we can live a better life.

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    One proud mother!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Wolfgang · 8 years ago
    Mr. Yon,

    I am a SSgt with the Air National Guard, currently deployed to KAF. Good to hear you are back in country. You are doing, and have always done, a great job reporting facts on the ground. If I run into you here at KAF I hope I have a chance to shake your hand. Keep telling it like it is brotha. How did you like that nice little flood we had? Nothing like rockets and mother nature to keep you on your toes.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Cyndy Aldous · 8 years ago
    Michael,
    Incredible coverage of our Air Force and the crucial work they do. This comes at a time when my nephew is finishing up basic flight training with the Air Force and will soon be given his flight assignment. His roommate was assigned the C5 and, while it was not his first choice, he is happy with the important work he will be doing. What an incredible honor to be part of the crew that supports all troops in this battle.

    You help us see the awesome work of our troops and the sacrifices they make for us.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    hando · 8 years ago
    Readers,


    Went to the superbowl. Great game. The biggest cheers came when the camera flashed to the military. We do appreciate you all.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Flash · 8 years ago
    Thanks for the memories! I retired in '96. I was on the crew on the ground that loaded cargo onto the C-130s. It's nice to see what happens after we were done with it. I've seen it from the outside, but never from the inside.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Chip Marshall · 8 years ago
    Michael,

    Wonderful job showing the team spirit of the troops. Keep Going!

    Cheers!

    Chip Marshall
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Rhonda · 8 years ago
    Thank you Mr. Yon for sending this on to us. Your work is very much appreciated. My son is in the area of this drop. You can know that in my heart I imagined it went to him and his men. Keep up the good work. Heading over to the paypal button. I would much rather support you than subscribe to that rag of a newspaper, the AJC, that we have here in Atlanta.

    All the best and stay safe,

    Rhonda

    P.S. SHOUT OUT to mortarman, hando, all service members and all the VETS.... Thank you for your service to our country! I am in debt to y'all.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 8 years ago
    "It is only OPSEC if it is information the enemy doesn't know. The locations on the map are the AIRBASES, ferchrissake. Do you really think the talibs don't kow where they are?"

    I'm beginning to think that if Michael posted a map of the world, with a single pin in the center of each country where US troops are publicly known to be stationed, somebody would accuse him of violating OPSEC.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    bob medley · 8 years ago
    super job, these pictures are fantastic and it's great to hear real information about out troops
  • This commment is unpublished.
    mrsh · 8 years ago
    Dear Sir,
    Thank-you for sharing your gift with us and for giving tribute to those who serve in such difficult missions. While news cres and talking heads can give a pale recounting, only you ever take us there, and let us be with the men and women we love. May the Lord Bless you and Keep you, and especially, St Michael Defend you. What a super report, just so special to us. Fare you well.

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