AL ASAD, Iraq -- Like a quarterback who leads a team of many different positions, C-130 pilots lead a diverse aircrew, absorbing input and making reasoned decisions.
Because of that unique role, the success of Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252’s mission is dependent on the abilities of its pilots not just to fly the aircraft, but to effectively lead a group of Marines with very different experiences and individual jobs.
“Whenever more than one Marine is gathered in a room, one of them is a leader,” said Maj. Glenn Vogel, a native of Virginia Beach, Va., and the executive officer for the VMGR-252 detachment in Iraq. “We’re all taught from the beginning that all Marines are leaders, regardless of their job is.”
The pilots in VMGR-252 aren’t dictatorial, said Sgt. Doug Rumick, a crew chief and Aurora, Ill., native. The pilots are the head of a crew which includes loadmasters and crew chiefs, each with their own area of expertise. They view their crew as assets in their quest to make sound decisions.
“(Flying the KC-130J) is very much a team effort, especially out here,” said Capt. Eric P. Rannenberg, a Bowling Green, Ky., native and pilot with VMGR-252. “I treat each crew member as an expert in their field, because that’s what they are. No single person is always going to have the best solution. By taking information from each person in the crew, you have five or six brains working on a problem instead of one. Your decisions are more informed if you have the crew to back you up.”
The KC-130J is equipped with an advanced radio system that allows each member of the crew to move around and do their work without losing communication with the rest of the group. During VMGR-252’s missions in Iraq, every decision is scrutinized, especially those deviating from the original flight plan. The pilots never make a decision and execute it unless safety concerns make it necessary. They’re constantly asking for alternative ideas and second opinions.
“Our pilots are awesome,” said Rumick. “Everyone has their job and the pilots realize that. I’ve been flying with some of these guys for four years, so we can almost read each other’s minds.”
Like all naval aviators, C-130 pilots learn the fundamentals of flight and aerodynamics before training in their particular aircraft. The Marine Corps recently updated its C-130 fleet to the KC-130J model, so most of the pilots of VMGR-252 initially learned how to fly the older C-130. Though learning how to fly a different aircraft added a little to the workload of the pilots, many are happy with the transition.
“I learned on the (older) models,” said Capt. David M. Naeher, a pilot with VMGR-252 and Bradenton, Fla., native. “But on the ‘J’ model, the avionics are newer and it is definitely a pilot’s airplane.”
The two pilots serve different functions within the cockpit. The co-pilot serves as second-in-command to the aircraft commander, who is always the senior pilot. Rannenberg, who serves in both positions, depending on the mission, said the squadron tries to pair junior pilots with more experienced Marines as aircraft commanders. This, he said, is mainly for the benefit of the younger Marine.
“Every co-pilot is an aircraft commander in training,” he said. “By pairing a junior guy with someone more experienced, the junior Marine gets to learn by example. It makes the whole operation go smoother.”
He added that the actual job of the two pilots is similar. The main difference is that the final decision is ultimately made by the aircraft commander.
“The pilots we have in this squadron right now are some of the best the Marine Corps has to offer,” said Vogel. “These young pilots are the future commanders and instructors in the Marine Corps.”
They may be instrumental in the future of C-130 flying in the Marine Corps, but they are still humble, Vogel said. They realize their distinct role as leaders of aviation professionals.
“The job can’t be done without the maintainers and the crew,” said Naeher. “This plane is very unique. With F/A-18s and (AV-8B) Harriers, it’s only the pilots in the air. But, we need multiple guys to get the job done.”