'Port Dawgs' team with 'Alamo Dustoff' for nighttime helicopter missions

  • Published
  • By Col. Kjäll Gopaul
  • Air Education and Training Command

Correction: This story, originally published Oct. 17, 2018, had the incorrect statement "Following the loading exercise, members of the team were given incentive rides on the helicopter." The load team flights were not an incentive, but part of the training.

For the second time in as many months, a joint air-ground team soared across the nighttime skies of San Antonio Oct. 12 in a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood action blockbuster. On the heels of a mirror-image mission that took place Aug. 22, Airmen from the 26th Aerial Port Squadron trained with the “Alamo Dustoff” Soldiers of Company C, 2-149 Aviation Regiment, Texas Army National Guard, and an active duty pathfinder team for the tactical day and nighttime helicopter extraction and insertion of disaster-relief supplies and personnel. 

Between both months’ missions, the Soldiers and Airmen masterfully executed joint air movement activities at San Antonio’s Martindale Army Airfield that saw the heliborne transportation of 57,000 pounds of cargo and 21 personnel over 35 sorties.

The most critical aspect of the disaster-relief scenario had the “Alamo Dustoff” Soldiers hover their aircraft less than four feet over the “Port Dawgs” hook-up teams so that supplies could be transported. Each mission was conducted in two parts – a late afternoon rehearsal and an evening phase to execute the nighttime tasks.

Tech. Sgt. Steven Rose, 26th Aerial Port Squadron ramp operations element supervisor and the October mission’s ground crew team chief, explained that his unit’s main mission is air transportation – loading and unloading all types of cargo for transport aircraft.

“We take part in mobility missions, humanitarian missions, search-and-rescue missions,” Rose said. “In fact, my first week in the unit, we were called up when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston to perform everything from transporting first aid to helping evacuees.” 

Rose elaborated how the sling load exercise and disaster relief scenario were beneficial training for his unit. 

“Normally, our aerial porters palletize loads for movement onto the ramps of a fixed wing aircraft,” said Rose. “While helicopter cargo movement is a part of our career field, we rarely do it; so any chance that we have to perform these tasks and assist with the Army is invaluable.” 

From the October mission, Warrant Officer John Maney, Company C, 2-149 Aviation medical evacuation pilot, explained how a key part of mission success was dependent on aircrew coordination between himself; the other pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Manuel Vasquez and the crew chief, Staff Sgt. Kyle Hjorth. 

“My focus was the hovering and aircrew coordination to keep the aircraft as steady as possible so the ground crew could complete their hook-up mission,” Maney said. “I thought the planning was solid going into the flight – we knew exactly where we were going, what we were doing and who we were dealing with. Even down to the road guard vests and raising the reach pendant above the shoulders as visual indicators that the ground crew was ready to go. Everything on my end was very smooth.”

He added that the exercise was beneficial because this supports wartime and mission essential tasks. 

“It’s a huge benefit,” said Maney. “This type of training, practical application of the knowledge and detailed planning ensures the mission executes without any problems.”

Offering another aviator’s perspective, one of the August mission’s pilots, 1st Lt. Kyle Snamiska, Company C, 2-149 Aviation medical evacuation pilot, added.

“The ground crews contribute pretty significantly to the exercise’s realism and mission focus,” said Snamiska. “We usually have to simulate a hook-up team’s actions and use lighter loads for home station training; tonight was better.” 

Reflecting on the October mission, Hjorth, flight medic and training non-commissioned officer, Company C, 2-149 Aviation, explained his role.

“As the pilots, Mr. Maney and Mr. Vasquez, were flying the aircraft, my role is as the liaison between the air crew and the ground crew,” Hjorth said. “I facilitate the operation of actually hooking up the load, maintaining communication with both the ground crew and the pilots to guide both teams, make sure everything goes smoothly, and ensure a successful hook-up.”

Hjorth was very impressed with execution by the ground crews.

“I couldn’t tell if these guys had done it with us a hundred times, or if they were just that good for their first mission,” said Hjorth. “That’s a real testament to the quality of their pre-mission training. The exercise was very smooth, everyone was proficient, and knew what to do. Even the public affairs photographer worked very safely around the active aircraft. Everyone involved was really fantastic.”

Hjorth commented the Air Force ground teams make home-station training much more realistic.

“Typically, for our home station training, we have a very simple load and a simple mission, but exercises with the Air Force ground crews have been much more realistic,” Hjorth said. “The cargo loads are more complex, they set up the LZs (landing zone) with marking panels and operate as you would in-theater. It is leaps and bounds above what we can typically pull off with an internally supported event. This type of training is important, since not everyone can work with other branches of service. Having consistent, joint operations allows us to nail down these simple but very critical tasks.”

The ground team consists of two people. The first person is responsible for hooking the sling to the aircraft. The second member stands behind the first and provides bracing against the rotor wash. Senior Airman Samuel Gordon, 26 APS aerial transportation journeyman and ground crew member, gave a detailed description of the ground crew’s tasks.

“We had an amazing helicopter re-supply exercise with the Army Soldiers,” Gordon said. “We mastered how to conduct a sling load – attaching cargo to a Black Hawk helicopter as it was hovering just a few feet over our heads. The mission went well and everyone involved got the opportunity to switch roles and to conduct the sling loads both, for the day and night operation. Beforehand, we had a formal safety brief fly aboard the aircraft then practiced passenger loading, we rehearsed prepping the cargo’s breakaway ties for each turn and how to hook up the load to the Black Hawk helicopter. We learned the safety considerations for the night operations – such as limiting light exposure for the pilots using their night vision goggles – by turning off flashes on our phones’ cameras, and knowing what to do in an emergency situation for both day and night – that really stuck with me.”

As part of the mission scenario, the team members conducted tactical loading and in-flight passenger procedures to train on how they would be transported to and from an isolated disaster relief location.

“We also had the chance to ride inside the Black Hawk," said Gordon. "We were briefed on how to position ourselves, approach the aircraft with the rotors moving at a 90 degree angle and how to put on the seatbelts. The view was incredible! I got see almost all of southeast San Antonio – the setting sun was out with rays coming through some clouds. It was my first time on helicopter. It was a pretty smooth ride, and a great experience. It was an amazing flight!”

Maj. Samuel Scallon, commander of Company C, 2-149 Aviation, underscored the mutual benefit of the exercises.

“We had several pilots that required readiness level progression training for nighttime tasks. By integrating the Air Force sling load teams to quickly attach the loads, we increased the number of sorties during the mission, and improved our individual and unit proficiency, as well as joint operations familiarity.”

Maj. Cliff Harris, commander of the 26th Aerial Port Squadron, said the air-ground training was beneficial for his unit, as well. 

“As operations are increasingly more multi-service, our members will forward deploy to assist in this very type of activity with our joint partners,” Harris said. “For example, our 26th APS Airmen have assisted in sling load operations downrange at combat outposts, so today’s mission is invaluable not only from the perspective of fostering joint relationships, but for the individual Airmen who could easily be augmentees to this very operation in a real-world setting. So the experience, we really couldn’t put a price-tag on it.”

“The mission of 26th APS is to produce trained aerial port professionals to provide cargo downrange at the port of embarkation and debarkation. This exercise falls right in line with our mission,” Harris said. “The relationship that we’ve established with ‘Alamo Dustoff’ and the Texas Army National Guard provides a unique opportunity to perform these tasks at home station."