by L. D. Alford
One exciting event in the C-130 airdrop world was the High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) airdrop. These were not all that popular with aircrew, and at the time, they were relatively rare in both the training and the real world. The reason they were relatively rare may become obvious in the next few paragraphs.
Somehow, during certain times of the year, training requirements came together with unit requirements and aircrew availability to make HALOs popular. Spring seemed to be one of those special times. This, of course, was also the season of colds and allergies. In spite of most aircrew’s appearance of handsome imperviousness, they are human and can be affected by common viruses, pollen, and bacteria.
One memorable day, I was assigned as the pilot in command of a “special” HALO mission. I had an experienced copilot, two very experienced navigators, a flight engineer, and two loadmasters. The senior navigator was a Canadian exchange and considered a real tough operator. He was a great tactical navigator. The presence of two navigators and two loadmasters are always a give away. It means that “special” kind of mission.
We were carrying an unmarked truck and an infil team that were dressed like farmers, but who looked like tautly muscled Army personnel with manicured high and tights (haircuts). Don’t get me wrong, these guys weren’t nearly as bad as OSI or Secret Service. You can spot an OSI or Secret Service agent from a mile away. The OSI and Secret Service really do wear three piece suits and trench coats, plus they are always packing concealed—and it makes a funny line to their coats. The ladies carry guns in their purses.
The airdrop load was set up as a combo drop. This means we would drop the truck as a heavy airdrop, and then the infil team would run out the back. The truck was rigged to fall to a low altitude prior to the parachutes opening, thus the name, HALO (High Altitude, Low Opening). The paratroopers were in a similar situation. I’m not sure if they had a special timer or altimeter to ensure their chute opened in time, but I do know that after the truck went out, they would wait just a little and then run out after it. They packed special black combat infil steerable chutes. Since the truck’s parachutes opened at a relatively higher altitude than the troopers, they should technically be able to catch up with the truck during freefall and follow it down. The trick for the infil troops was to not lose their truck. If you lose your truck, you lose all your special weapons and equipment. The back of the truck and other places were filled with all kinds of stuff. Plus, if you lose your truck, you will be walking for a long way.
Now, the most important thing to understand about this mission is that the US Air Force spends thousands of dollars to train navigators to be able to drop stuff from aircraft exactly where the military needs it to go. Navigators drop a-bombs, regular bombs, heavy equipment loads, tanks, road graders, and people onto tiny targets in the middle of nowhere. Navigators put all these objects right were they need to be, when they need to be there. I don’t know if anyone else in the world is trained quite like this, but Air Force navigators are. Pilots on the other hand are trained to put an aircraft in space right where and when the navigator directs them. So you have a team concept here. To understand the paradox in this true account, you have to understand who is really trained and knows exactly what they are doing in the aircraft.
You also need to understand the slight envy problem that exists between Special Forces aviators and Special Forces soldiers. I’m sure that every Special Forces soldier does not want to be an aviator, but I assure you no Special Forces aviator wants to be a soldier. Look at it reasonably. When you are a Special Forces aviator, you get the call, you do the job, and at the end of the day, you sit in your hooch with a cold beer in your hand on a relatively clean bed—or you go home. On the other hand, a Special Forces soldier goes into isolation to prepare for the mission. Isolation may last a month or a week. Isolation is a big deal—you don’t see your family, friends, or the real world; all you do is prep for the mission. Then you get into a plane with the Special Forces aviators. They fly you to the special location and drop you. If you listen and follow the instructions of the Special Forces aviators, you will land in the proper location near your equipment and target. If you don’t, you walk for days trying to find your truck. Afterward, when the aviators are sitting in their hooch with a cold beer, you are lying on the cold ground under the stars and eating a cold meals ready to eat (MRE) until you finish the mission, are captured, killed, or rescued. Some people like that life. I took my father’s advice—that’s why I joined the Air Force.
Now on this particular mission, we flew to an undisclosed location and set up for the HALO. To do this, we needed to prepare for the drop by prebreathing 100 percent oxygen for thirty minutes prior to takeoff. This means you have to wear your helmet and oxygen mask from thirty minutes prior to takeoff until landing. Usually C-130 crew members, except the loadmasters, only wear helmets and masks when they absolutely have to—they usually wear headphones. We didn’t have a phystech (physiology technician) on board because we weren’t going above 25,000 feet. We were making the drop at 20,000 feet. If you go above 25,000 feet unpressurized, you have to take a phsytech who watches you and treats you if you have a physiological incident. The worst is the bends. Without pressurization above 10,000 feet, aviators and the parachutists can get nitrogen bubbles in their blood. To prevent this, you try to remove as much nitrogen out of your system as possible prior to flight. The big deal is, you have to plan all this time in the mission profile. Any interruption in prebreathing 100 percent oxygen means you have to start back at zero time and start all over again. A thirty minute delay makes for a late time on target.
For this mission everything went well. We loaded the truck, rigged the aircraft, briefed the infil troops, and started prebreathing. There was one little thing that bothered me about the briefing. I told the infil troops that when the green light went on, we would hit the button and the truck would go out. The nav computed a five second count for their drop. We would flip the light again at five seconds, and they should be all out of the back before it went red at fifteen seconds. The infil troops requested that we just leave the green light on until they were out of the back or if an unsafe situation occurred. I didn’t like this plan, but I was willing to live with it—it was their necks.
The way an airdrop works is while the crew is flying to the drop point, you run through a set of checklists to prepare the aircraft, crew, cargo, and parachutists for the drop. Green light is the point the navigator has determined that if the cargo or troops leave the aircraft, they have a very strong chance of hitting the impact point. At the navigator’s signal, the copilot turns on a green light that illuminates in the cargo compartment. Red light is where the load is clear, or it is not safe to drop. At that point, the copilot turns on a red light in the cargo compartment.
So sucking the hose on 100 percent oxygen, we took off from Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina and headed to our target. Suffice to say the target was for training, but I can’t share exactly where it was. It was not in a normal military operating area. The flight took a while, so we were miserable for a while in our helmets and masks. Most fighter missions last only about two hours maximum. These kinds of HALO missions can last as long as ten hours; this one was luckily only planned for about four hours.
At twenty minutes prior to the target, the main navigator called out, “Twenty minutes, pilot.” The secondary navigator was a back up and running the data from the bunk. That’s how important this type of drop and mission is—you have two navigators because you can’t afford to make a mistake. We had already run through the 10,000 foot cabin altitude check and the cabin altitude check when we passed 10,000 feet and again when we arrived at our drop altitude of 20,000 feet.
The loadmaster affirmed, “Twenty-minute warning acknowledged, Loadmaster.”
I called, “HALO personnel checklist.” The flight engineer began the rest of the checklist by reading it out and listening for the crew response.
Flight engineer, “Slowdown, drop zone, and escape.”
Flight engineer, “Helmets and oxygen”
“On and checked, pilot.”
Flight engineer, “Computer drop information.”
“Twenty-minute checks complete, loadmaster.”
Flight engineer, “Pilot, twenty-minute checklist compete.”
Whenever the flight engineer completed a checklist, he would touch my shoulder. This gave a tactile signal so I could be assured the checklists were each complete, “Thanks eng.”
A few minutes later, the navigator announced, “Ten-minute warning.”
“Ten-minute warning acknowledged, loadmaster.”
Flight engineer, “Red light.”
Flight engineer, “Altimeters.”
“Set, two nine nine two, copilot.”
“Set, two nine nine two, pilot.”
“Set, two nine nine two, nav.”
Flight engineer, “Jump light control switch.”
“Ten-minute checks complete, loadmaster.”
“Pilot, ten-minute checklist complete.”
The navigator called with some excitement, “Pilot prepare to slowdown.” The trick in a combat mission is to fly as fast as you can for as long as you can. When you slow down, you make yourself a target. Of course when you are above about 1000 feet above ground level (AGL) in a big aircraft, you are a target. Now, HALO is usually not done under conditions where you can get shot out of the sky. Still, just in case, you want to keep your speed up as long as possible. The navigator plans the slowdown so you can stabilize the aircraft ready to drop at the last second and get the load out. Then, after the load is clear and the red light goes back on you speed up and descend to a safe altitude. In this case, the escape from the HALO run was to get below 10,000 feet so we could get off oxygen and take off the masks. Not the best plan for combat, but a great crew comfort technique.
The navigator called, “Pilot, slowdown, slowdown, now.”
At slowdown, the power came back to a set torque point and the aircraft slowed to drop speed, usually 120 knots. The copilot lowered the flaps to 50 percent on speed, to be at 50 percent as soon as the aircraft reached the maximum 50 percent flaps speed. Everything had to be done with exact precision because any delay would not give the pilot time to stabilize for the drop and too quick a slowdown would screw up the nav’s calculations and timing. When the flaps hit 50 percent, the copilot announced, “Flaps, 50 percent.”
Flight engineer, “Aux pump.”
Flight engineer, “Ramp and door.”
“Clear to open, copilot.”
“Open and locked, loadmaster.”
Flight engineer, “Computer airdrop checks.”
“Slowdown checks complete, loadmaster.”
“Pilot, slowdown checklist complete.”
On time, the navigator called, “Two-minutes.”
“Two-minute advisory acknowledged, loadmaster.”
Then at one minute, navigator, “Crew, one minute warning.”
“One minute warning acknowledged, loadmaster.”
“One minute check complete, loadmaster.”
Navigator, “Five seconds—green light.” The navigator called the green light right at the High Altitude Release Point (HARP) he computed.
The copilot yelled, “Green light – on.”
We all felt a rumble thought the airframe, and I noted the load moving the center of gravity of the aircraft. In a heavy airdrop, a small parachute deploys out the back of the aircraft and deploys a set of one to three larger chutes that drag the load out of the aircraft. Once the load is clear, on a usual heavy drop, the main chutes immediately deploy and the load continues to the ground. On a HALO drop, the main chutes are activated by timer and altimeter. During a heavy airdrop, while the load is exiting the aircraft, the pilot had to hold the aircraft steady without putting any g-load on it. Any gs could cause the load to hang and that’s really bad. When you were flying the aircraft, you could feel everything. I knew that the truck was out of the aircraft before the loadmaster called, “The truck is clear, waiting for the troops.”
We waited and waited and waited. It seemed like forever. The main navigator finally asked me, “Pilot, you want to call it?” (note: you must not use the words red light or especially green light in the aircraft unless you are making a directed statement.)
I clicked the intercom back to the loadmaster, “Load, tell those bozos to get out of my aircraft before we overfly the safe zone. I swear, I’ll tell the co to flip the switch.”
Finally, the loadmaster came back with, “Load clear, pilot.”
Navigator, “Red light.”
Copilot, “Red light – on.”
Flight engineer, “Ramp and door.”
“Closed and locked, loadmaster.”
Flight engineer, “Door light out. Aux pump.”
Flight engineer, “Red light.”
Flight engineer, “Check/norm switch, airdrop mode.”
“Check, off, nav. Accelerate now.”
I pushed the power up, “Flaps up.”
The copilot raised the flaps, “Flaps are up,”
“Drop checks complete, loadmaster.”
“Pilot, drop checklist compete.”
The navigator called, “How late did they go out load?”
“I figure about thirty seconds, nav.”
The number two nav said, “I was watching them from the back of the cargo compartment. I had it right at thirty-two seconds.”
The navigator began to fret, “That will put them over a mile from the target.”
The second navigator laughed, “At this altitude. They’ll be a lot further off target than that. Plus the wind is blowing them away from the target.”
I piped up, “Hey guys, we’re clear of them and the cargo, let’s see how they do.” I turned the aircraft around and rolled up on a wing in a long turn so we could see the aim point and the infil troops.
The second navigator was up in my window, “I see the parachute on the truck. It’s headed right toward the impact point. Looks sweet, nav.”
The loadmaster called out, “I see all the troops; they are trying to catch up with the truck, but they aren’t even close. Man, there they go. They’re popping their chutes. That looked a little late.” He laughed, “They are miles from the truck.”
“Yeah, pilot, they aren’t anywhere close. They’ll spend the next week trying to find it.”
The copilot pitched in, “If they ever do.”
“Well guys,” I turned back on course, “Let’s get below 10,000 and head home.”
“Yea, please, pilot,” the loadmasters voted.
We headed back to Pope. At the same time, the flight engineer started pumping the aircraft pressure back up to normal. We reached 10,000 feet pressure about the same time as the aircraft. The moment we were below 10,000 feet, I authorized the crew to go off oxygen and we changed out of our helmets for our headphones. Air Traffic Control (ATC) kept us pretty high, but we came in below 6,000 feet. On the way, I briefed the approach and landing, “Hey why don’t we do a ground fire avoidance pattern? You guys up to it?”
“Sure pilot.” That kind of pattern would get us down quicker and with less fuss. After this mission, I think everyone was into that.
With the tower’s clearance, I set up at 4,500 feet and headed straight down the runway. The trick of a ground fire avoidance pattern is to keep the aircraft as high as possible for as long as possible and within the security boundaries of the airfield. You literally make a high rate of descent turn to final within the boundaries of the airfield and a C-130 can do it easy. When we crossed over the numbers, I pulled the power back and we began configuring—on speed. The copilot threw out the flaps and gear. He put the flaps down as the speed decreased until we had gear, 100 percent flaps, and 140 knots. At one third of the way down the runway, I started a tight turn and buried the nose. I held the aircraft at 140 knots and headed around to final. Unfortunately, on downwind, I felt a twinge in my ears, “Hey, co take the aircraft, I need to clear my ears.”
“I’m having a little problem too pilot, but I’ll take it.”
“You have the aircraft.”
“I have the aircraft.”
I was able to clear my ears with a hearty valsalva (holding your nose and blowing with all your strength). I told the copilot, “Just take it out wide and forget about the tactical pattern. You okay to land it?”
“Yeah,” but, he didn’t sound too confident.
As he turned onto final, I glanced over, and he was looking pretty bad.
The co told me, “Hey pilot, you have to take the aircraft. I can’t clear my ears. You have the aircraft.”
“I have the aircraft. I’ll tell the tower and let’s do a three-sixty so you can clear your ears.”
We made a three-sixty on final and stayed at altitude for a while until the copilot gave me a thumbs up. I called, “Everyone else okay.” Everyone answered, “Yes.” So I continued the final approach to a normal landing. After landing, we cleaned up the aircraft and headed out. On the way back to the squadron, I did notice the main navigator was holding his ears and acting like he was trying to clear them on the crew bus.
I found out the true extent of the damage the next day. I met my copilot and the main navigator at the flight surgeon during sick call the next morning. The copilot and I had colds with blocked ears and were put on duty not including flying (DNIF) for a few days. The navigator had blown out one of his ear drums and was on DNIF for a month. We didn’t have colds going into the mission. Anyone who has had to prebreathe 100 percent oxygen knows that your estuation tubes absorb oxygen and shrink as the oxygen slowly leaks out of the tissue. This leaves you with plugged ears whenever you prebreathe oxygen and come back to the normal atmospheric mix. Whatever happened, under the conditions, our ears couldn’t handle the pressure change. After that, I decided I had made enough HALO drops. That one just wasn’t that much fun. Plus when the troops don’t listen to you (or the navigator), they end up screwing up the entire mission. We never heard if the infil team ever found their truck. I wasn’t sure if they ever made their way back. For all I know, they could still be out in the middle of the good old USA trying to find a Ford 150 truck with parachutes attacked to it.
I decided that was enough for HALO missions and tried to avoid them as much as possible. I found that was, of course, impossible. Once you are considered experienced in a certain mission—guess who always gets to fly them…you guessed right.
The author is a retired Air Force test pilot. His other aviation, technical, and fiction writing can be referenced at www.ldalford.com.
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