Commentary by by Airman 1st Class Joshua Kleinholz
99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
6/23/2013 - NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNS) -- "The
drop is in 12 minutes!" shouted a crew member, struggling to be heard
over the roar of the mighty C-17 Globemaster III's four engines, each
putting out approximately 40,000 pounds of thrust.
Quickly I made my way down the ladder from the flight deck and started
the perilous walk toward my seat at the very end of the C-17's massive
fuselage. I grabbed anything possible to avoid being thrown to the floor
during the pilot's aggressive banking, with thousands of dollars of Air
Force camera equipment on my back. Mercifully, I made it to my seat,
flipped it down and strapped in.
12 minutes later, like clockwork, the fuselage was flooded with sunlight
as the ramp was lowered. The first of many parachutes was attached to a
formidable piece of Air Force construction equipment prior to it being
slid out the back into the blue sky.
In all the commotion, I had just enough time to get my camera into
position and snap off those last few shots as the massive piece of steel
was ripped out of the back of the aircraft headed for the desert valley
below. I was left in awe watching it glide down through the clouds of
flare smoke to the intended drop zone wondering; "How did I get here?"
Just nine months ago, I was a brand-new high school graduate working at a
Sonic Drive-In, in Gilbert, Ariz. Ask anyone who knew me and they'd
tell you I was always good in school. In fact, I graduated with a 3.75
GPA at one of the highest-rated schools in Arizona.
But I already knew that college wasn't for me; the military was all I really wanted.
I was off to basic military training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas,
Sept. 25, 2012, where I was "introduced" to my new life, and started
from the bottom to learn the ins and outs of military life. Both of my
instructors were staff sergeants, so it's funny for me looking back to a
time when a person with four stripes was intimidating beyond approach,
any officer was even scarier and a general was a myth.
I was assigned a 3N0X5A Air Force specialty code, and suddenly I was an
Air Force photojournalist expected to show the faces, and tell the story
of the Air Force. This is a formidable task for a fresh high school
graduate who's been a part of the Air Force for less than six months,
and remains admittedly unaware of most of its workings.
Fast forward just six months, and I'm packing my camera bag full of
water and beef jerky in preparation for what's sure to be the high point
of my career thus far; a day onboard a C-17 flying through a simulated
Upon arrival at my assigned aircraft, I was able to observe the last
checks and inspections on the cargo, a massive 820th RED HORSE backhoe.
Parachutes of various sizes and innumerable cords, ties and hooks
adorned the massive piece of equipment, with any moving parts packed
tightly in place. This thing was in for a rough ride, and the hours of
meticulous rigging and packing were a clear indication of its value to
warfighters on the ground.
I sat down and checked my equipment, cleaned lenses and adjusted camera
settings as I awaited takeoff. I remember pulling out my phone and
checking my Facebook profile, reading about some people I knew back home
still at their old jobs, doing the same old things and dealing with the
same old problems.
"Where do you want to sit?" asked the aircraft's energetic loadmaster,
Staff Sgt. Steven Doubler from the 57th Weapons Squadron, at Joint Base
McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., as he pointed to various spots around the
fuselage. Thrilled to even have a choice in the matter, I immediately
took him up on his offer to spend my day on the flight deck observing
the skills and processes involved with flying such a hulking machine in a
At the top of the ladder to the flight deck, I was briefly greeted by
the crew who were understandably quite busy checking the functionality
of endless buttons, dials and displays.
Once in the air and en route to "enemy territory," the group of five
experienced pilots took the opportunity to really teach me the ins and
outs of the day's mission. My questions and observations were met with
great enthusiasm by Lt. Col. Shawn Serfass, the 57th Weapons Squadron
director of operations, there along with Brig. Gen. Charles Moore, the
57th Wing commander, to oversee and evaluate all aspects of the exercise
from the best seat in the house; the formation lead C-17.
Talking with Serfass, it became immediately clear how passionate and
enthusiastic he was about the exercise and the air combat mission as a
whole. He showed me a variety of what he simply called "products," that
were really quite complex graphs and maps developed by U.S. Air Force
Weapons School, or USAFWS, planners that choreographed every aspect of
the mission. Who, what, when, where, and what if; all down to the
"This is an example of how the mission would go in a perfect world,"
Serfass said with maps in hand gesturing towards our pilot, Capt.
Matthew Purcell, a 57th Weapons Squadron USAFWC student.
He went on to explain in depth what makes a USAFWS graduate uniquely
qualified versus those Airmen who haven't had the opportunity to attend.
He said the sophisticated planning is vital, but pilots need to be
trusted to make experienced and educated decisions if things go wrong.
"What if somebody's a few minutes late? What if we miss the drop zone?
What if we lose an aircraft?," Serfass said, listing just a few aspects
of the plan that could go awry.
"The air war has started," said Maj. Nate Hagerman, the aircraft
commander, grinning in his seat behind the co-pilot. "Friendly" fighters
had crossed into the Nevada Test and Training Range, and were engaging
with "enemy" aggressor aircraft and simulated surface-to-air missile
sites in order to lighten the resistance for the cargo aircraft
transporting equipment and paratroopers. Pilots from the 64th and 65th
Aggressor Squadrons, flying F-15C Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons
bearing aggressive foreign paint schemes, are experts in adversary
tactics and certainly wouldn't make it easy.
Eventually, the formation of 13 C-17s was cleared to converge on the drop zone; it was time.
I watched the numbers on the altimeter in the pilot's heads-up display
decrease at an alarming rate, and grabbed a solid piece of railing as
Capt. Purcell threw our aircraft into a plunge between the mountains
toward the desert floor -- 1,500 feet, 1,200 feet, 900 feet, 600 feet;
the numbers kept falling.
"Why are we flying so low?" I turned to my right and asked Serfass, who
was also bracing himself against the aggressive pitches and dives over
and between mountains.
"It's the radar!" he said excitedly, turning to me and pulling off one
side of his headset. "We need to stay low so we don't get picked up.
Just be careful and hold onto something, you'll get a good leg work
I laughed and turned my head back toward the cockpit window, where
Purcell had us sideways yet again, bobbing up and down in his seat and
bending his neck checking all his sightlines and expertly maneuvering
into position for the drop.
In that moment I remember thinking to myself, "so this is what it's
like." I remember thinking about all the dedicated pilots who flew, and
continue to fly real missions like this every day. Missions infinitely
more perilous than the relatively controlled exercise I was sent to
document that day. And as I, a humble airman first class in a cramped
cockpit with weapons officers ranging from captain to brigadier general,
sat back and observed the focus and attention to detail put on display
by the aircrew. It was blatantly apparent to me why the United States
has the best Air Force in the world.