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Heart of Combat Airlift: pilots, loadmasters

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Kevin Sommer Giron
  • 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

“We lost an engine right after taking off from Kandahar,” said Capt. Nick Rapp, 19th Airlift Wing chief of safety. “It was our fourth mission together, early in our deployment, and the first time where we really had our feet to the fire.”

As adrenaline filled the veins of the aircrew, Staff Sgt. J.R. Childres instinctually conducted the emergency checklist while the new aircraft commander troubleshot the faulty bird.

“We did a lot of problem solving and decision making in that short period of time,” Rapp said. “Everybody performed admirably and we were finally able to land the plane. After a sigh of relief, I realized it was the beginning of a good relationship.”

During their four-month deployment to the Middle East, Rapp and Childres worked together to fly more than 240 sorties in support of Operation Freedom Sentinel.

As the only aircrew members aboard a C-130J, pilots and loadmasters are at the heart of Combat Airlift. Although their responsibilities differ, their objective is the same: provide unrivaled global Combat Airlift of U.S Air Force assets.

“As a loadmaster, the back of the aircraft is my baby,” Childres, 41st Airlift Squadron instructor loadmaster, said. “Our main priority is managing the loading and offloading of cargo while keeping the aircraft’s weight and balance within flight limitations.”

The flight deck, or front of the plane, is the pilot’s area of expertise. From takeoff to landing, the mission of C-130 pilots is to safely deliver cargo or passengers in all types of weather conditions and threat environments.

The aircrew operate as a cohesive unit, relying on each other to execute the mission. 

“We would taxi in and he (Rapp) would come down and help us unload and load cargo,” Childres said. “Our priority would then switch to starting up the aircraft. I sometimes told him I could fly the plane for him, but he never let me.” Childres joked.

During their first few flights, Rapp and Childres garnered mutual belief and admiration for each other through their shared priorities and effective use of crew resource management.

"Complete trust and respect are pivotal tenets for any good partnership," Rapp said. “He trusted my decisions, and I trusted his judgement because I knew our priorities always aligned."

The duo employed crew resource management, or CRM, to maintain clear and open communication during their mission. CRM kept them situationally aware and aided in the decision making process that led to the safe return of their aircraft to Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan.

Despite their differences in rank, responsibility and personality, Rapp and Childres fostered a close friendship that aided in the successful delivery of more than 1,200 tons of cargo to the frontlines.

“Our personalities were so yin and yang that we were never complacent,” Childres said.

The officer and enlisted relationship is dynamic. Although the utmost respect for rank is maintained, support for one another is critical in upholding morale during contingency operations.

“Being deployed you get to see who a person really is; everyone comes together as a family to support one another,” Childres said.

The Air Force culture is centered on the ideal that Airmen will always safeguard each other and never let his or her wingman stray into danger.

The partnership exhibited by C-130 aircrews exemplifies the importance of Wingmanship and can be the difference between life and death in an emergency situation.