AL ASAD, Iraq -- The C-130J “Hercules” is a versatile aircraft. In a combat environment, it can perform a wide variety of missions ranging from nighttime cargo drops to troop transport. All it takes is a simple reconfiguration of the cargo space in the belly of the aircraft.
The Marines in charge of that space are known as loadmasters, and they are responsible for everything behind the cabin.
Becoming a loadmaster is no easy task. Training begins at Naval Aircrew Candidates School in Pensacola, Fla., followed by Survival Evasion Resistance Escape training. The rest of the loadmaster’s training is split between their military occupational specialty school at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., and qualification with their follow-on squadron in the fleet, according to Cpl. Brian Morgan, a loadmaster with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252 Detachment Alpha.
All that training takes about two years, making it one of the longest MOS training periods in the Marine Corps, according to Cpl. Tavia Kauffman, a loadmaster with VMGR-252 Det. A.
“It, however, has been worth it to be one of about 140 loadmasters in the entire Marine Corps,” said Kauffman, a Homer, Alaska, native. “Our job literally takes us to the ends of the earth and back. Who could ask for more?”
The wide range of missions that the C-130J is suited for means loadmasters must be prepared to perform a variety of tasks every time they take to the skies.
“The pilots rely heavily on all the Marines that compose the crew,” said Capt Michael L. Valenti, a pilot with Det. A. “The loadmasters in particular, are quite often tasked with last minute, time crucial assignments. For example, quite often we will land at an airfield to drop off passengers. Soon after landing we’re told that we have multiple pallets to load and take back to another airfield. This is where the loadmaster is at the top of his game.”
The loadmaster must quickly determine if the aircraft is capable of carrying the cargo, and then make sure it is loaded properly into the cargo compartment. Another important factor is ensuring that the cargo is balanced correctly, according to Valenti, an Ocean Township, N.J., native.
In addition, for much of the flight a loadmaster acts as another pair of eyes for the pilots. From their vantage point in the rear of the Hercules, they can see many things that the pilots can not.
“Our responsibilities during takeoff and landing are, in a nutshell, to provide an extra set of eyes in the windows of the aircraft, to alert the crew of any small arms,
(anti-aircraft artillery), or missile fire so that we can take the proper defensive measures,” said Morgan, a Germantown, Md., native. “We also keep an eye on any cargo or passengers in case of a load shift in the cargo compartment.”
Paratroopers, casualties, Heavy Equipment Airdrop Pallets and Cargo Delivery System bundles – a loadmaster must be able to load them safely into the cargo compartment.
Loadmasters also have the somber duty to watch over “Angels,” fallen service members, as they are flown out of Iraq.
The loadmasters also have an important role during aerial refueling. They watch over the whole process from the windows of the Hercules, calling out the position of the aircraft and making sure the fuel hose deploys properly.
“By tanking off of the C-130J Hercules, these aircraft are able to extend the range and duration of their support for the infantry on the ground,” said Morgan.
Kauffman believes the loadmasters of Det. A have risen to the challenge of a high operational tempo and the large number of roles they must play each flight.
“How much responsibility we are given is incredible,” Kauffman said. “A full crew only requires one qualified loadmaster, and they are answerable for their entire job and all types of flights we do.”
Though they are not on the ground kicking doors down with the infantry, loadmasters know what they do is crucial to the mission on the ground, according to Morgan.
With the wide variety of roles that the C-130J can fill, the loadmasters of Det. A play a key role in the success of the squadron during their time in the skies of Iraq, according to Valenti.
“We never want to say no to the units we are supporting,” said Valenti. “The loadmasters will typically bend over backwards in order to accomplish our mission.”