Rescue Loadmasters: Balance is key

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Ceaira Tinsley
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
A rescue loadmaster squeezes around the tight space in the back of an HC-130J Combat King II.  With a nearly 6,000 pound Humvee waiting to be airdropped, there is little room for maneuvering and zero room for error.

He surveys his computer, double checks the cargo handling system and then awaits the pilot's go-ahead to open the cargo doors. He arms his computer for airdrop and anxiously anticipates the green light. The timing has to be precise because the winds are constantly changing. The indicator light flashes and instantly the locks are released. The cargo door opens and out goes the initial extraction chute into the sky. The parachute hauls the Humvee out of the aircraft. The job is done and it's just another day in the "office" for the 71st RQS.

Moody loadmasters play an important role in keeping the HC-130J soaring in the sky and assisting the rescue mission. The dominant duties of a loadmaster are calculating aircraft weight, balance records and cargo manifest, conducting cargo and personnel airdrops, and troubleshooting in-flight problems.

"Pilots have a great view, but there's no greater feeling than having the doors open and seeing a 2,500 pound piece of equipment go flying out the back of the aircraft," said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jacob Dattage, 71st Rescue Squadron combat search and rescue loadmaster, who believes being a loadmaster is his dream job. "It's just amazing knowing that you did your job the right way and now someone on the ground is being taken care of."

With the introduction of the newer HC-130J Combat King II there have been changes to the demands of a loadmaster that require flexibility to get the job done.

"Before it was all about being responsible for the back of the aircraft," said Staff Sgt. Todd Johnson, 71st Rescue Squadron combat search and rescue loadmaster. "Now I'm in charge of pre-flighting the entire aircraft and I get to be more of a 'Renaissance man.' I need to have basic systems knowledge of the aircraft, just in case things go wrong, so I can troubleshoot the problem. For some people it's kind of overwhelming at first, but it's actually nice because we [play] more of a part of in the operations of the [flight]." 

Juggling the tasks of any job can be a challenge, but for loadmasters, balance is key. Overloading a section of the aircraft or miscalculating weight limits could be fatal.

"Everything is numbers and math," said Dattage, who described his job as math extensive.

There are six pallet positions on the aircraft and each section has certain weight limits and loading procedures, said Dattage. This leaves little room for error, because overloading these sections or improperly distributing weight can make the plane too heavy for a safe takeoff or cause a crash.

Not only do Moody's loadmasters carry out all of the traditional demands of the career field, but they also play a vital part in the rescue mission.

"If we're out doing a search and rescue mission, we're out there looking into the water or wherever the person got lost," said Johnson, who has been a rescue loadmaster for three years. "If you have a moment where you look away or your mind is elsewhere, that could've been the moment that you missed someone. Stuff like that is very stressful but it is also very rewarding when you actually play a part in saving someone's life."

Realizing that despite their best efforts some people won't be rescued, Dattage says he's grateful for the days he has to sit behind his desk and look at a computer.

A silent philosophy for some in the rescue community is if they're training or sitting behind a desk then everyone is safe, said Dattage.

The things they see and the places they go vary but one particular loadmaster said an eye opening experience took place during his first and only deployment.

Johnson recalled an 8-year-old Afghan boy whose legs were blown off in an explosion. Despite his injuries, the boy's positive energy and excitement to be in the back of an HC-130J overflowed, Johnson said. The young child smiled and laughed as Johnson handed him a teddy bear. Johnson watched as his eyes lit up with joy. He remembers the Afghan child looking at the crew and giving them a thumbs up.

"It was honestly the best experience I've ever had in my life, whereas so many people in the military do their job behind the scenes ... our job was actually to go in and take part in saving lives," said Johnson, whose been a part of 165 combat missions.  "Honestly the real heroes are our doctors, nurses, and PJs (pararescuemen) who actually perform the patient care, but to know that I had a part in saving peoples' lives is something that is rewarding."

Quests like this are what make rescue loadmasters unique. At Moody, the back of an HC-130J is their domain, but for them it's just another day in the office.