JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas –
A joint Total Force team led by the 74th Aerial Port Squadron peers into a darkened landscape masked by a moonless evening sky in preparation for an ambitious helicopter sling load mission dubbed “Operation Nightstorm.” All of their other senses are heightened to compensate for the reduced visibility as Soldiers of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 149th Aviation Regiment “Alamo Dust off” descend toward the tactical landing zone in two UH-60L Black Hawks.
The piercing whine of four Pratt and Whitney turbine engines consumes the silence as the helicopter blades propel dust clouds across the site. Soon, the team is immersed in the smell of burned JP-8 fuel, the unrelenting wind and dust against their skin, and the repetitive whirring roar of the rotor blades slicing through the air.
All the while, small dots of light marking a Humvee and three cargo bags of supplies to be taken aloft struggle to disclose themselves through the cloak of darkness that envelops the landing zone.
While this could be the opening scene of a Hollywood action movie, it was reality for 34 joint servicemembers executing a sling load exercise at Joint Base San Antonio-Chapman Annex Dec. 15.
This was a Total Force mission that integrated Air Force Reserve Component Airmen from the 74th APS, Texas Army National Guard Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 149th Aviation Regiment, 1st Battalion, 108th Aviation Regiment, and active-duty servicemembers from the Air Force Special Warfare Training Support Squadron, 343rd Training Squadron, and JBSA-Camp Bullis Training Support Company; all under the direction of the Air Force’s senior Pathfinder.
Coming on the heels of a successful daytime sling load mission on Sept. 9, the units increased their aerial cargo delivery expertise by conducting a similar operation at night.
The coordinated air and ground teams executed 43 sorties to transport more than 100,000 pounds of equipment and vehicles, and 21 personnel by helicopter.
Tech. Sgt. Rebecca Martinez, 74th APS Air Terminal Operations Center (ATOC) information controller, served as the pick-up zone non-commissioned officer in charge and ensured the smooth synchronization of air and ground forces before and during the exercise.
In explaining the importance of the mission, she said, “I experienced the vision of a joint partnership that had the outcome of an amazing exercise. We brought together different units and branches – Army, Air Force, special warfare, security forces, and other training units -- to improve everyone’s proficiency.
“It can be difficult for one unit to train on certain tasks just by itself without outside support,” she said. “There was so much planning to create a small window of high-quality training, but by integrating all these units for this mission, it came together perfectly – we knocked it out of the park!”
Senior Airman Sergio De La Mora, 74th APS ATOC aerial transportation specialist, described his preparation day experience before the night mission.
“On prep day, we started with a helicopter safety brief,” he said. “We learned how to safely buckle into the seats, exit the aircraft, and conduct emergency actions. Everyone was focused on learning the right procedures, helping each other, and the keeping the right frame of mind.
“Later, we practiced rigging and inspecting the cargo loads. We had to work as team – taking our time to do it right, and communicating with each other,” he said. “There are four sides to the load, and all four sides have to work together, and not rush through the steps to do it right.
“After that, we rehearsed our hook-ups using the loads we had just rigged,” he said.
Reflecting on the mission, De La Mora said he is better prepared for when he deploys downrange to transport different types of cargo with helicopters and work with other services.
Staff Sgt. Victor Calvo, 343rd Training Squadron opposing force instructor, conducted eight sling loads and found the experience helpful.
“The rigging class and rehearsals the day before were very beneficial,” he said. “While you can’t simulate the wind and noise, we still learned the basic actions and safety procedures.
“On the actual landing zone, each hook-up team takes its position at the load to be lifted, puts the breakaway ties in place, and makes sure the lifting straps aren’t caught on the load,” he said. “Then, the hook-up person holds up the reach pendant and waits for the aircraft to descend.
“It’s a little bit daunting the first time, but that’s why you have a bracer to hold you in place, hold your nerve, and make sure you don’t fall over from the force of the approaching helicopter’s rotor was,” he said. “The wind calms down when the Black Hawk hovers directly overhead, and you knock the reach pendant into the aircraft’s cargo hook with a little bit of force. Then, you double-check to make sure nothing is caught on the load, go to your pre-designated safety position, and give a thumbs-up.
“The aircrew slowly lifts the load into the air and flies off with it,” he said. “Eventually, they come back, put the load back down, and the next ground team repeats the hook-up.”
Staff Sgt. Calvo marveled at the lift capacity of the aircraft.
“I had no idea that a UH-60 could lift a Humvee,” he said. “I thought, ‘There’s no way -- only a Chinook or a cargo plane can carry that kind of load.’ It was really cool to see how confident and competent the Army aircrews were to be able to lift the load from the LZ (landing zone or loading zone?), and put it back with pinpoint accuracy. It was pretty smooth.”
Calvo said the training is important because it demonstrates that multi-service cooperation can work really well.
“You normally don’t get do a lot of joint operations unless you go downrange,” he said.
Pfc. Jorge Cruz, JBSA-Camp Bullis training support company medic, echoed this sentiment.
“The best part of this exercise was how it showed that the branches can work together – Army and Air Force, National Guard, Reserve Component, and Active Duty,” he said. “It was great training with other units, with everyone learning from each other.”