Rain drops pelt the nose of a C-5M Galaxy airlifter as its loading ramp descends, revealing a cavernous cargo hold packed with enough Army air power to level a tank column.
Three AH-64 Apache attack helicopters from the 1st Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment at Fort Bliss, Texas, roll out of the C-5 at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve, a demonstration of U.S. commitment to maintaining peace and stability in Europe.
Airmen and Soldiers step in and begin moving the helicopters down the airlifter’s ramp, parking them in a row as a second C-5M prepares for unloading nearby. The 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, part of the storied 10th Mountain Division, is the first of the U.S. “heel to toe” rotational combat aviation brigades to deploy to Eastern Europe in support of OAR.
Observing the cargo movement, Maj. Gen. Timothy Zadalis, U.S. Air Forces in Europe vice commander, noted the significance of how these helicopters got there. The largest airlifter in the Air Force inventory, the C-5M can carry up to six Apache helicopters, two M1A Abrams tanks or 250,000 pounds of supplies.
“The beautiful thing about the C-5M is that one day you could deliver combat airpower, and the next day you could be delivering humanitarian airlift around the world,” he said. “It’s part of what we do. It’s part of our commitment to Europe, it’s part of our commitment to NATO, and it’s part of our commitment to freedom.”
The brigade is deploying more than 2,000 Soldiers, 86 helicopters and more than 700 pieces of equipment from the U.S. to Germany, Latvia and Romania to exercise its ability to rapidly deploy large forces to Europe. Some of those forces will also come by sea and make their way from seaports in southern Europe.
But “rapidly” is the operative word, hence the airlift. That’s where the planners at the 618th Air Operations Center come in.
“It’s our job to get the requirements there on time,” said Staff Sgt. Clay Wonders, 618th AOC Worldwide Contingency Missions Office contingency airlift planner. “They push us the load plans, and we plan the mission.”
The Worldwide Contingency Missions Office, more commonly known as “XOPCE,” is responsible for planning every airlift mission outside of the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. This four-person team must look at every aspect of the mission to make certain the flight crews can safely fly to the location, offload and take off again.
“It’s a very detailed checklist,” said Maj. Cody Huet, XOPCE branch chief. “It will step the planner through the entire planning process and provide opportunities for the planner to add remarks if there is anything unusual about that step.”
The checklist helps the planner paint a picture of the situation at the location where the mission will occur. What is the maximum weight the airfield’s runway can support? Is there parking available for the aircraft? Do they have the proper firefighting support available if something goes wrong? The checklist helps the planner answer these questions and find a way to solve problems before they happen.
“An example would be if the aircraft is over weight for the airfield and we need to coordinate a waiver for it,” Huet said. “We can annotate that in the checklist so everyone in our shop can see that and can help work that issue for the mission.
The requirements that must be satisfied before an aircraft can leave the ground are extensive and varied, requiring the team to be very detail-oriented.
Wonders has worked in XOPCE for one year. A KC-10 boom operator for seven years, he said coming to the planning section was “eye-opening.” His first planning mission taught him just how detail-oriented the job was.
“My first mission, I forgot to plan for bringing the jet back to home station,” he said with a smile. “My supervisor saw it and informed me that you can’t just leave an airplane at Ramstein.”
Huet said everyone has the ability to check everyone else’s work to avoid missteps.
“Everyone has a view of what’s going on in the mission,” he said. “There’s no single point of failure anywhere. Each mission has their own webpage where we can view the checklist, any document associated with the mission, request and review diplomatic clearance requests along with a bunch of other features specific for that mission.”
Despite the amount of coordination, the process moves pretty quickly, Huet said.
“It goes up and down, but we do about 50 missions per month,” he said. “And depending on the amount of coordination, each mission takes about five to six hours to plan.”
A significant number of those missions this month, more than 20 percent, are in support of OAR. For XOPCE, he said, it’s like any other mission.
“What we do for them is the same as what we do for every mission we plan,” he said.
“Twenty-four-hour support until the mission is complete.”
Zadalis led the 618th AOC from 2013 to 2015. A mobility Airman himself, he said he understands and appreciates the importance of what mobility Airmen do and what they provide U.S. forces in Europe.
“There’s a significant amount of planning that can occur real fast once the strategic decision is made to move a unit like this,” Zadalis said. “In a crisis or contingency that can all be done in a matter of hours because of the professionalism of our Mobility Airmen. This movement here today typifies what that community, the mobility community, does best. We here in Europe today are the benefactors of this incredible capability.”
Brig. Gen. Kenneth Bibb, Jr., the current 618th AOC commander, said the equipment might be impressive, but none of it works without the 618th AOC getting it where it needs to be.
“You don’t have to be everywhere at once, if you can be anywhere at any time,” Bibb said. “That’s what the 618th AOC does. It provides the planning, command and control that allows us to take a limited amount of resources and put the right asset at the right place at the right time to make the mission happen.
“We have mobility aircraft taking off every two to three minutes on missions that can touch any continent on the planet. The men and women on this team do phenomenal work making that happen.”