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Commentary | July 20, 2007

A day in the life of an airlift navigator

By 1st Lt. Michael Trimble 386th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron

Editor's note: 1st Lt. Michael Trimble is from Yorktown, Va.

My crew and I had an awesome mission the other night, one that reminded me just how much manpower, money, and risk the U.S. military will put into saving one of its own.

As a C-130 crew, we spend all our time hauling troops and cargo to and from the fight. After flying these missions every other day for a couple of months, they start to feel routine; we sometimes forget that every C-130 full of troops means 70 Army types that don't have to fear an improvised explosive device on their way into and out of Iraq.

And while we manage to keep so many troops safe from roadside bombs, the team here at our deployed base also gets called upon to help when the insurgents manage to injure an American.

One significant enemy that aircrews face in Iraq is the unpredictable desert weather. The weather sheet we're handed before every mission is a matrix of times and predicted conditions (green, yellow, and red) for each airfield. A bad day is a "rainbow sheet."

The night of the mission in question, we were on our way to Tikrit, we had a rainbow sheet and were picking up the most important cargo I've ever carried: 12 ambulatory patients and one critical case, an IED victim who'd had both legs blown off below the knee. He was better off than the other five IED victims we've carried, but he needed a real hospital real soon.

The medical folks didn't move him from the field hospital until we parked at the remote airfield outside Tikrit and notified their command post that we were on the ground. With the unpredictability of airlift over here, it's dangerous and stupid to disturb a critical patient until his ride is ready and waiting.

He nearly coded before he was even loaded onto the plane. The medics resuscitated him in the ambulance, its doors open toward the cargo compartment, where 20 healthy Soldiers and the 12 other patients watched from their fold-down canvas seats. The loadmasters in the back told us in front what was going on. For a long hour, it looked like we'd be leaving without him.

When we finally took off, I'm told he was clammy, with shallow breaths and his hands occasionally grasping around the sides of his stretcher, then clenching into fists, then grasping at nothing at all, then resting, twitching.

We weren't taking him out of the country, just to a hub, an air base inside Iraq with a long enough runway for the bigger, faster C-17 that would take him to Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany, if he made it that far.

There are so many air bases over here that there's no need for airdrop, my bread and butter. Between them, my pilots have flown over 100 combat missions, and they need little help with navigating around this small and now-familiar country. So as a navigator, I have three raisons d'etre in a C-130 over Iraq: operate the defensive systems, keep us away from threats and use my radar to get us around thunderstorms.

No one shot at us that night, but a thunderstorm the size of Washington, D.C., sat between us and our destination. The size of the storm was such that it couldn't be avoided visually, even on night-vision googles. But my 40-year-old radar, with enough tweaking, can not only map a storm but show you where it's strongest and where will be the best place, if necessary, to punch through.

As we got within radio range of our destination, we were told by approach control that the field was closed due to lightening within five miles. We informed them that we had a critical patient on board and that if we could outmaneuver the storm, we were coming in whether the field was open or not.

Problem was, the thunderstorm was about 40 miles wide, covering the field and everything north of it. We told approach that we'd go south; they nixed that though. Several kill boxes south of the field were active, which means that someone, probably F-16s, Army Apaches, or a Predator UAV, was blowing something up. No one was allowed through those sectors, for fear of friendly fire or a mid-air collision.

So using the radar, we walked the plane all the way around the north side of the storm, looking for a way in. When we'd gone clear across the northern edge, the radar showed a narrow alley between the main weather mass and a smaller storm following close in its wake. I told the pilot I had a way in.

He asked if it was clear all the way to the field. I told him it was the best we were going to get, unless we wanted to wait for the whole mess to blow away, which might have taken another 45 minutes.

He said simply, "Let's do it." I gave him a heading, and we dove down toward the field from 18,000 feet, splitting the two walls of angry, towering clouds.

I gave a couple heading corrections as the storms continued to move around us, the alley closing in until we couldn't see an inch past the windshield. We pressed on, using the GPS and moving map display to assure us the path was clear of obstacles and active airspace.

The pilots and the flight engineer configured the plane to land - we still hadn't seen the ground. The loadmasters made sure our passengers and the aeromedical team was ready to land, and scanned outside for enemy fire.

We broke out of the haze about two miles from the field, 600 feet above the ground, right on runway heading. The pilots greased it in. Our patient was on a fast jet to Germany hours later.

Between our crew, the aeromedical evacuation team, the radar controllers and airfield personnel, the maintainers that miraculously keep these 40-year-old birds flying, the flight planners and tacticians, the security forces that keep the base perimeters secure, not to mention the C-17 crew and all their support, and the helicopter crew that retrieved the victim in the first place, I can only estimate that it took hundreds of us to fly that one wounded soldier to safety. I can only hope that's a comfort to the thousands in more dangerous jobs than mine.