Story by: Col. Kjäll Gopaul,
Deputy Director, Air Force Personnel Operations Activity
The deceptively cool morning skies over Martindale Army Airfield had started their climb to 90 degrees Fahrenheit as a joint, Total Force team of Texas Army National Guard Soldiers, Air Force Reserve Airmen, and an Active Duty pathfinder team prepared for their own climb into the heavens on wings of titanium.
Their mission, dubbed OPERATION ALAMO EVACUATION, was simple in its definition, but far-reaching in its demonstration for how components of the armed services can flawlessly converge on an objective and excel in its execution.
The exercise scenario took place November 18 at Martindale Army Airfield and simulated Airmen from the 26th Aerial Port Squadron receiving airdropped relief supplies from the 136th Airlift Wing in a remote part of Southwest Asia. The Airmen then re-rigged the loads for sling load evacuation and pinpoint delivery by the Soldiers of Company C, 2-149 Aviation, to the relief supply recipients in the impassable mountains overlooking the drop zone. The Soldiers subsequently conducted no-notice “alert” 9-line medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) responses in support of the scenario’s follow-on operations that afternoon, and flew the Airmen as MEDEVAC actors from Martindale Army Airfield to Joint Base San Antonio-Camp Bullis and back.
“We started the morning with an aircraft safety brief and rehearsals for our hookups,” Senior Airman Justin King, 26th APS ramp operator, said as he described the morning’s activities. “Once things got going, the UH-60 Black Hawks came in two at-a-time, picking up the sling loads for a simulated relief supply drop-off. It was exciting to do something that is part of the aerial porter job, yet not part of our everyday norm. This was a great experience! Now we’ve all conducted live sling loads, and understand how they can benefit our future operations wherever we go.”
During the exercise each two-person hook-up team on the ground stood beneath a helicopter while it hovered overhead, then attached the load to the aircraft’s cargo hook.
“It was neat watching the Soldiers bring their aircraft in over us,” Air Force Second Lieutenant Matthew Gonzales, 26th APS officer in charge of the passenger terminal, added. “It’s also intimidating as a huge helicopter approaches the load with the blades spinning, the rotor wash was incredible. I didn’t think that it would be that powerful, or that someone would really be needed to stand behind and brace the hook-up person, but I’m glad they were there. This was an awesome opportunity. I just received my commission last week, and I haven’t done anything like this in my 10 years in the Air Force. This is my first drill weekend at the 26 Aerial Port Squadron, and this type of training instills military pride, develops a joint mindset by working with other services, and aligns with the chief of staff of the Air Force’s vision on joint operations.”
Chief Master Sergeant Joe Gonzalez, 26th APS operations superintendent, served as the pick-up zone NCO in charge (PZ NCOIC) and remarked on the opportunity this mission afforded his Airmen.
“As the PZ NCOIC, I participated in the mission planning and supervised the safe execution of hook-ups at the touchdown points,” he said. “It was great see our Traditional Reservists get outside the normal garrison training environment and onto a flight line with the Army National Guard Soldiers. As aerial porters, we deploy downrange, and don’t always know what we’ll be asked to do; so we have to work with what’s there. Likewise, this mission gave us valuable experience with less familiar tasks. We rigged A-22 cargo bags and conducted sling load training with live helicopters, something that that most aerial porters rarely do before deploying. This was especially valuable as our unit approaches its deployment window.”
Offering an aviator’s perspective of the sling load hook-ups, Army First Lieutenant Christian Lubbe, Texas ARNG Company C, 2-149 Aviation, aeromedical evacuation officer and platoon leader for the Sustainment Platoon, commented, “The ground crews were very proficient and clearly had been trained to be familiar with the task at hand. I was impressed at the rate which we were accomplishing the iterations. The aircraft would leave and the ground teams were ready to hook the next load.”
He particularly noted the joint benefit, “From an inter-service standpoint, it’s amazing to have a team of Airmen here with us. This is my first type of training like this, and I hope to do more in the future.”
Army Sergeant Tiffani Smith, Texas ARNG Company C, 2-149 Aviation, flight medic, echoed that the morning sling loads were well coordinated from beginning to end.
“It was well-thought out process, executed well, and served as a good refresher for me,” she said. “I thought that the visual cues with the ground marking panels and hook-up teams’ colored safety vests were helpful. It allowed me to see when the hook-up team was ready, and where to aim the aircraft as we approached the load.”
She noted the inter-service camaraderie demonstrated during her safety brief to the Airmen that morning carried over to their MEDEVAC flights as passengers that afternoon.
“They were all eager and professional,” she said. “During the safety brief, they were focused and paid attention. I think it’s because we’re all familiar with American military operations. We just came back from Kosovo, and working with other nations presents different challenges. Today’s team was calm, cool, and collected. They were prepared, and followed directions very well so we could focus on the mission.”
In keeping with its exercise name, OPERATION ALAMO EVACUATION witnessed the sling load evacuation of more than 36,000 pounds of cargo and the medical evacuation of 27 MEDEVAC actors. Both of the leaders of the participating Texas Army National Guard and Air Force Reserve units emphasized that the day’s mission had value far beyond these tactical measures of accomplishment.
Lieutenant Colonel Jeremy Moore, 26th APS commander, underscored that the mission of the exercise aligned with his unit’s warfighting mission.
“Our primary mission at the 26th APS is to train and provide combat ready aerial porters,” he said. “This joint opportunity let us exercise some of our more unique support requirements that we normally wouldn't see outside of a deployed location. More importantly, it provided our younger Airmen the opportunity to build and understand inter-service relationships with a key mission partner, the Army. It was exciting to see this come together, and to reinforce our ability to provide Rapid Global Mobility.”
Offering his key leader perspective, Lieutenant Colonel José Reyes, Texas ARNG Company C, 2-149 Aviation commander, remarked how beneficial the training was for both developing technical proficiency and inter-service relationships.
“This was a tremendous opportunity for our units to work together,” he said. “I challenged my staff to plan the most efficient training with aircrew and aircraft sequencing. Integrating the Air Force hook-up teams and pre-rigged loads improved the process, allowing faster iterations. We trained 12 pilots, six crew chiefs, and four medics. To put that many crews through training with only two aircraft in such a short amount of time speaks volumes for the value of inter-service cooperation.”
Reyes remarked that the success of the day’s exercise shows a promising future for joint operations.
“We’re building a relationship,” he said. “We’ve established an association, successfully executed this mission, and now we can plan on future opportunities to reinforce our Joint, Total-Force partnership.”