S.C. lifeline to Afghanistan

Air power can reach any outpost

Route that starts in S.C. is a key supply strategy

ccrumbo@thestate.comOctober 22, 2009 

— Above western Afghanistan's golden brown mounds of sand and rock, Capt. Brian Moynihan pulls up slightly the nose of the C-130 transport plane he's piloting.

Then, from the 40-foot-long cargo hold where a U.S. flag hangs from the bulwark, 16 pallets loaded with food and water, wrapped in dark green nylon, roll out the back door. The pallets, suspended from 26-foot-wide parachutes, float down to waiting U.S. troops.

It's here - aboard Flight Torque 48 - that the 7,500-mile-long lifeline from Charleston Air Force Base to Afghanistan ends.

In a country with goat paths for roads and dominated by a tortuous, forbidding mountain range, the quickest and safest way to get food, water and ammo to the troops is by air.

That makes air power a game-changer in Afghanistan.

It provides the U.S. military with an almost unfathomable ability to reach even the most remote outpost in a matter of hours, said Lt. Gen. Mike Hostage, chief of Air Force Central Command.

"The ability of air power to move about a large span of geography in a short period of time is very comforting for a small force that's up in the steep mountain valley that gets in trouble," said Hostage, whose home is 9th Air Force headquarters at Sumter's Shaw Air Force Base. "Air power is really the only way you're going to help them."

Afghanistan does not have access to sea or river ports for ship traffic. Its neighbors also restrict the type of cargo that can be hauled through their countries on its way to Afghanistan.

A country as big as Texas, Afghanistan has a national road system that consists mostly of a two-lane blacktop called the "ring road," encircling the Hindu Kush Mountains, which cover about a third of the nation.

In the summer, it takes an Afghan trucker an average of 21 days to traverse the 250-mile route between Bagram Airfield and Kandahar Airfield, the major staging base for U.S. and NATO units operating in southern Afghanistan. During the bitter Afghan winter, deliveries can take twice that long.

Vehicles traveling Afghanistan's roads and trails also can become targets for bandits, who put up roadblocks to rob motorists and even hijack civilian-owned transport trucks that haul nonlethal U.S. military cargo.

Truck convoys also are prime targets for bomb attacks. Earlier this year, the Pentagon reported that bombs caused 75 percent of casualties suffered by U.S. and coalition forces, up from 50 percent in 2007.

Without ports and with only poor, dangerous roads, the option that remains is to fly.

"Airlift is safer than driving these roads where they set IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and ambushes," said Lt. Col. Chris McGraw, commander of Moynihan's squadron.

'IT NEVER REALLY ENDS'

The hub of air power in Afghanistan is Bagram Airfield in the northeastern corner of the country, about 40 miles from the capital, Kabul.

Supplies are flown to Bagram from U.S. bases at Charleston and at Dover, Del., aboard C-17 Globemasters and C-5A Galaxies as well as contractor-owned cargo planes.

At Bagram, the planes are unloaded and contents moved to a cargo yard. Pallets then are loaded aboard C-17s, C-130s and Chinook CH-47 helicopters, depending on the destination.

The aerial port squadron at Bagram handles an average of 100 missions a day, said its commander, Lt. Col. Dan Krall, whose home station is McQuire Air Force Base, N.J.

Krall's crews handle about 400 tons of supplies and gear a day.

In the spring, when U.S. forces in Afghanistan doubled to more than 65,000, passenger traffic shot up 60 percent and cargo rose about 25 percent, Krall said.

About 1,000 service members and civilians - contractors and Defense Department personnel - now move daily through Bagram's passenger terminal, catching military flights into the countryside or to bases in other parts of the Persian Gulf region.

With talk that President Barack Obama is mulling a request from U.S. commanders to deploy at least another 40,000 troops to Afghanistan, Krall figures his squadron's 95 airmen - 75 percent Reservists and Air Guardsmen - won't catch much of a breather.

"It never really ends, it seems," Krall said.

PARACHUTES GUIDED BY SATELLITES

Afghanistan has only a handful of airstrips. Few have paved runways long enough to handle everything from gargantuan transport planes to dart-shaped fighter jets.

Moynihan's C-130, powered by four turboprop engines, can land on short, unimproved runways. But sometimes those areas can be in the middle of fire fight.

Air-dropping goods into a fight can be problematic, too, because troops don't have the time to gather up pallets over a drop zone of several hundred feet.

A safer and more precise delivery system uses parachutes guided by global positioning satellites.

"We can drop a pallet inside this room from high altitude," Hostage said during an interview inside his approximately 20-foot-by-20-foot office at Shaw.

With technology called Joint Precision Air Drop System, C-17 and C-130 air crews can drop cargo from higher altitudes, removing the threat of fire from the enemy below.

However, delivering the goods by air requires meticulous planning, said Capt. Derek Dupuis, a C-17 pilot from Greenville, who is based at Charleston.

"Sometimes, we have drop zones that are on the side of a hill," Dupuis said. "If the drop is off a little bit, it'll be rolling down the hill."

Forty-eight hours before an air drop, crews start planning. Routes are studied and crews get updates on a range of information - from insurgent activity to the weather.

Making a drop while flying a $200 million airplane through a narrow, winding mountain valley demands concentration and the ability to multitask, said Capt. Josh Ellis of Summerville, who recently transferred to McChord Air Force Base, Wash.

"Every airdrop has to be planned and well-rehearsed," Ellis said at Bagram. "You can't be living in the moment.

"You need to be prepared for what's coming next."

ABOARD THE TORQUE 48

Moynihan's Torque 48 aircraft is part of a fleet of C-130 transports based at Bagram. All of the planes come from Air National Guard units and are flown here by Guard crews.

A trip from the United States to Afghanistan on the four-engine turboprops, which have a top speed of about 370 miles per hour, can take three to four days.

"It doesn't get anywhere quick, but it does what it's designed to do," said Moynihan, a member of Nevada Air National Guard and a pilot for regional carrier Sky West in civilian life.

Squadron commander McGraw of Fort Worth, Texas, said his unit has crews from Texas, Delaware, Alaska and Nevada. The C-130 crews have extensive experience with Afghanistan's rugged terrain, McGraw said.

"Most of these guys have been here many times, so the mountains are not that big a deal for us," he added.

Moynihan and his crew typically fly two airdrop missions a day.

The first, on a recent morning, lasted about three hours as the plane hauled food and water to a remote U.S. outpost. Then, the plane returned to Bagram to refuel and pick up another load.

When landing at the end of the first mission, the brakes on Moynihan's plane overheated and the crew had to switch from their Nevada Air Guard plane to one from the Alaska Air Guard.

Because of the breakdown and time needed to get a second plane ready, takeoff for the western Afghanistan mission was delayed about two hours.

All the preparation and delay went into a flight that lasted three hours and culminated in an airdrop that took just seconds.

Back on the ground, Moynihan described the mission as "fine."

"We got it done," he said. "We got the stuff off."

Reach Crumbo at (803) 771-8503.

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