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Pope unit lynchpin to Global Response Force mission

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher
  • 18th Air Force Public Affairs

North Carolina stayed frozen thanks to an ice storm that shut down much of the state in January. Just 24-hours after the storm rolled through, despite ice and freezing temperatures, the airfield’s flightline heated up with activity. 

Airman 1st Class Kursten Davenport stood by waiting for a K-loader to arrive so she and her team could load a C-17 Globemaster with cargo. Behind her, teammates with the 43rd Air Mobility Squadron worked to de-ice a second C-17.

Davenport knew the cold caused delays in the preparing the cargo for the K-loader, a vehicle designed to move heavy gear to and from aircraft.

She slid her hands under the arms of her fleece jacket, trying to keep out the wind and the cold. The K-loaders however, weren’t so lucky. The rollers had frozen in-place, requiring forklifts to move the pallets from the trucks to the K-loaders.  

An Air Mobility Control Center controller had just arrived with the loadmasters, aircrew and a group of 82nd Airborne Division loaders, so she knew the cargo would be ready to load shortly.

Once the K-loader arrived, Davenport went to work. The driver lined it up to the ramp of the C-17. She stood to the side, chocks ready in her hands, as the loadmaster directed the K-loader’s driver to slowly approach the aircraft. When the loader finally stopped, mere inches from the C-17’s horizontal ramp, Davenport placed the chocks around the K-loader’s front tire, keeping the loader in place.

Davenport, her team and 82nd ABN Soldiers move in, working together to push the cargo from the K-loader into the C-17.

The Greenwood, Missouri, native didn’t know much about Pope AAF before her arrival straight from technical school six months ago. Her father, an Air Force veteran himself, warned her before she left home that, as a ramp operator, she would be busy.

She and her team now know just what her father meant.

Pope AAF is the second busiest en-route location in the Air Force and the launching point of the 82nd ABN, America’s Global Response Force. When called up, the base must be able to receive aircraft, then load and deploy Soldiers and their equipment in a very short time with little notice.

Coming from training, where students pushed light cargo, to moving tons of equipment and vehicles on the U.S.’s largest Army airfield, Davenport said the change was jarring, but exciting.

“It’s different than what I expected,” she said.  “Going through tech school and doing it was very different than doing it here in real life. In tech school we were moving light pallets and empty boxes, and here it’s actually mission essential stuff.”

Davenport is a member of the 43rd AMS, part of the 43rd Air Mobility Operations Group at Pope Army Airfield. The 43rd AMOG holds the distinction of being the only air mobility operations group in the continental U.S. The group not only conducts mobility operations, but also acts as a miniature air base wing, providing medical and mission-support functions to joint personnel assigned there, and they do it all with 950 Airmen.

“Pope Army Airfield is unlike any other Army airfield,” said Col. Kelly Holbert, the group’s commander. “As far as mobility missions coming in and out of here, it’s the busiest Army airfield you’re going to have. We have some traditional squadrons that you find in other operations groups, but we have others that are not. We have a secondary, non-operations centric mission here.”

One of the things that makes Pope unique is that it has no aircraft of its own. The 43rd AMOG falls under the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center and is part of Air Mobility Command’s en -route system. Its purpose is to support mobility missions that originate elsewhere with functions such as command and control, aircraft maintenance and aerial port operations. 

Primarily there to support real world and training missions moving throughout the globe, they also provide support to the 82nd ABN training mission, keeping Army paratroopers and Air Force mobility aircrews qualified in the air-drop mission. In addition to the 950 AMOG Airmen assigned to Pope AAF, they also support 2,200 Airmen assigned to the post from other major commands, such as Air Force Special Operations Command.

“The volume of operations here, both real world contingency mission and training missions, necessitates a very large en-route structure,” Holbert said. “We have a medical squadron here embedded with our Army partners. We have a comptroller flight and an air base squadron that provides many of the finance and administrative functions that a normal Air Force base would have. We also have the busiest aeromedical evacuation squadron in the continental U.S. right now.”

One of the biggest pieces of that en-route structure is the “Green Ramp,” where all the airfield’s air drop operations originate. Providing support to Army Airborne training is one of the most important functions of the group, according to Holbert, particularly as neighboring Fort Bragg is the home of the Global Response Force.

“The GRF would be incapable of getting anywhere without the outload support from our AMOG Airmen,” he said. “It’s an extensive process to get personnel and equipment processed, equipped, out to the aircraft, loaded and launched, and you simply cannot do that without the expertise that is found here. The ability for the Army to have global reach is absolutely facilitated by the Airmen here.”

That expertise includes everything from de-icing aircraft to inspecting cargo. Inspectors from the 43rd AMS and 43rd Operations Support Squadron go over every piece of cargo, making sure they’re rigged to both Air Force and Army standards. The 43rd AMS is then responsible for moving cargo to the ramp and loading it onto the aircraft. It also maintains the aircraft while at Pope.

“We play a big role,” said Lt. Col. Paul Bryant, 43rd AMS commander. “You have all the cargo, all the paratroopers that need to come forward. The Army brings it to us, and we take control of that and we make sure it is ready to be transported on U.S. Air Force aircraft or on civilian aircraft. We also ensure that those people and equipment are loaded safely and is on its way to whatever destination it needs to get to as timely as possible.”

In this role, the 43rd AMOG acts as an intermediary between the GRF and the AMC aircrews who will fly them to their drop zones.  Lt. Col. Christopher Kiser, 43rd OSS commander, said part of the job is knowing the things those two players don’t know to ask.

“The aircrews that come in here, they know Air Force business, but they don’t necessarily know how to conduct Pope business,” he said. “They also don’t necessarily know what the Army is thinking in terms of what their needs are, what questions they need to have answered.”

Kiser said the AMOG is prepared to act and work with the Army and AMC at any time, often with little or no notice.

“If the flag goes up, and the Global Response Force is going to launch, these are things we’re already working before the aircraft have even arrived,” Kiser said. “We’re talking to the Army about what they’re tasked with, what they’re moving and how they’re going to employ it. We get the ball rolling and we start working in that direction before the aircraft are even in the air to get here.”

There is a lot of “canned” coordination that goes into making sure the GRF timelines are met, Kiser said. Part of that is inspecting the equipment the GRF maintains on alert to ensure it’s ready to load. They also codify processes and procedures to make sure the Army and Air Force are both meeting their requirements.

“The idea is that we’re posturing them to be able to launch the GRF at a moment’s notice,” Kiser said. “So a lot of things happen behind the scenes. It’s constant. It never stops. We are constantly engaged with the 82nd ABN and 18th Airborne Corps.”

“We work jointly at the tactical level on a day-today basis here,” Bryant added. “We have about 30 percent of the Department of Defense’s Joint Airborne Air Transportability Training exercises conducted right here off of Green Ramp every single year. It’s the Airmen of the 43rd AMOG, who are supporting the Army and other joint users in those JA/ATT missions.”

Senior Airman Joshua Slagel is a Joint Inspector for the 43rd AMS, charged with inspecting cargo, making certain it’s airworthy and load-planning the aircraft.  He said it can be a long and tedious process with a high operations tempo, but the stakes are high. He said the consequences for slipping up on the job can be disastrous.

“If we don’t do our jobs right, the airplane can crash,” he said definitively.

Exaggeration? Perhaps not.

Improperly loaded or secured cargo can shift in flight, damaging the aircraft, sometimes catastrophically. This happened to a Dubai-bound 747 cargo plane on take-off from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in 2013, when an improperly secured Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle shifted and disabled two hydraulic systems. The cargo plane crashed, killing seven people.

The joint inspectors serve as a safety net, making sure accidents such as the Bagram crash don’t happen at Pope. Tech. Sgt. Joseph Berglund, 43rd OSS Joint Airdrop Inspection NCOIC and a loadmaster by trade, said nothing can drop out of an Air Force aircraft without being inspected by them first, and that can add up.

“Last year, we inspected over 2,000 items, totaling more than 14 million pounds,” Berglund said. “We are the busiest and most complex joint air drop inspection shop in AMC. You have to be extremely detail-oriented. We’re talking about quarter-inch cotton webbing, which is just a quarter inch thick that breaks at 80 pounds, but it’s holding two pieces of metal together to secure a line that’s holding parachutes. If we miss that, if it’s not tied correctly, it could inadvertently break open or come loose and then we end up with a chute that doesn’t deploy right.”

The key to making those inspections work, Berglund said, is a close working relationship with the Army riggers.

“It’s about as joint as you can be without being put inside of an Army unit,” he said. “We are working side-by-side all day, making sure we’re all reading the same manual and reading it the same way. They cannot drop without our signatures. We are a lynchpin when it comes to getting things from the Army to the Air Force handling and to the aircraft itself.”

The relationship between the two services can be challenging to maintain. Both have different regulations, procedures, doctrine and, in some cases, even different languages.

Despite these challenges, both sides of the Bragg/Pope divide recognize the value the other brings. Army Sergeant 1st Class Avery Thompson, 82nd ABN Ground Liaison Officer is the Army’s representation for any air drop or air-land operations that take place out of Pope and the Army’s link to the Air Force during those operations. It’s also his job to work through any challenges that may crop up between the two services.

“Anytime you mix two service elements together that are different, you’re going to have some friction,” Thompson said. “We have a very good working relationship with the Air Force civilians and the Airmen here. That lets us fix any problems that come up. Good communication is key. If you don’t have good communication, something is going to fall through. Something isn’t going to make it.”

Slagel said working with the Army is a learning opportunity that makes both the Airmen and the Soldiers better.

“I love working with the Army,” he said.  “It’s a unique opportunity. Working so closely with another unit, with another branch, we learn to talk Army and they learn to talk Air Force. It’s beneficial to both sides.”

“Many Airmen when they get to Pope, they might be a bit intimidated by coming to Fort Bragg with 55,000 Soldiers,” Holbert added. “What they quickly realize is they couldn’t do their mission without us, and we couldn’t do our mission without them.”

Army Maj. Travis Stellfox, 82nd ABN Director of Airborne Operations, said the interoperability between the Air Force and Army is essential, not only to the GRF mission but the training operations that help them prepare for it.

“Realistically, in my job, I don’t think I could do just about anything without the 43rd AMOG,” Stellfox said. “We work as closely as possible with everyone from the Air Force that we touch, whether it be the air wing or the 43rd AMOG supporting here. We’re in constant contact, and it’s important that we keep it that way because the development of those relationships is really how we better understand the way we each operate and how to make everything we do more effective.”

Kiser said all of the pieces must come together and work right the first time. There are no second chances when it comes to GRF deployment.

“The Global Response Force is only in one location, and that’s here,” Kiser said. “The GRF is responsible for deploying a seizure force anywhere on the globe in a certain time period. If the Air Force component here is not tracking that and is not ready to support, then the GRF outload can fail, and that’s the stakes we’re talking about here.”

“That’s why Pope never closes,” he said.

It’s nearly sundown before the cargo is finally loaded and ready to launch. The temperature has started to drop again, and there’s another long day to look forward to. Nearby, members of the AMOG are starting to load the other C-17. Although Davenport may not have known what to expect when she first arrived, she now understands how important her unit is to the GRF.

“It’s exciting knowing that whenever they’re activated you’re going to be busy and constantly getting equipment ready for those who need it,” she said.