A Loadmaster’s Lament
by Fred Fredine
As we taxied for takeoff, I looked out the back of the C-119 cargo area and could see the Army sergeant running behind the plane trying to catch up. The afternoon jungle rain, which only an hour ago sent torrents of water cascading over the perforated steel plate that covered the runway, was now escaping through the holes as streams of vapor carrying the smell of rotting vegetation toward the sky, and leaving the PSP wet and slippery. Using the web straps attached to the side of the plane for handholds I struggled toward the ten-foot opening in the rear of the plane, where the clam shell doors used to be, and stepped over the rollers that we nailed to the floor.
The cargo area, partially loaded with boxes and pallets containing military hardware, was ready for para-drop to the troops. As the plane slowed to turn onto the runway, I extended my left arm, holding onto the last strap with my right, and reached out yelling to the sergeant, “Throw the rifle on board and grab my arm.” Arms locked, I pulled as hard as I could as he jumped, dragging him into the cargo area on top of the rollers, and slinging him to the side where he could grab the webbing and his M16, as it vibrated toward the opening.
The plane finished its turn, the brakes locked, and the engines started revving up. The engines were cycling up and down as the pilot ran through his last-minute checks of magnetos and props prior to takeoff. Amid the noise and vibration, the sergeant looked up at me and yelled, “We need you at the other end of the runway for an emergency pickup.”
“Hang on tight,” I yelled and stood up, starting for the front of the plane. I could hear the hydraulic and electric motors driving the flaps to the takeoff position, knowing that in moments the engines would be revving up for takeoff. I had to make it to the cockpit entrance before that takeoff run started, and the acceleration kept me from moving forward, or even worse falling onto the rollers and out the back of the plane onto the runway.
The thin aluminum sides of the airplane amplified the sound of the 3000 hp engines as they revved up, vibrating like tympanic instruments to the sound of the exhausts. As I stood up, quickly stepping over the rollers, and around the tie-downs of the cargo, I felt the brakes release and the plane lurched forward. Diving forward against the forces of acceleration and gravity, I reached for the handle at the cockpit stairway entrance and yelled, “Abort! Abort!” and crashed head first into the stairs as the engine noise subsided and the plane slid to a stop on the wet PSP.
“You OK, Sergeant?” the co-pilot said, looking down at me from the cockpit.
“Yes, sir,” I replied, sitting up and rubbing my shoulder. “The Army sergeant…” turning my head and nodding toward the back “…has an emergency requirement.”
“Army sergeant?” the co-pilot said incredulously. “How did he get on board? Forget that, what’s the problem?”
The Army sergeant yelled from the back of the plane, “Sir, we’ve got a platoon taking fire. They need that fucking equipment that’s at the other end of the runway. Now!”
The co-pilot turned and leaned forward talking to the pilot, and then leaned back into the stairway and said “Got it. Hang on.” The brakes released and the plane accelerated forward again. Almost as quickly as we accelerated, the brakes were applied, and we slid to a turning stop at the end of the 3,800-foot runway. Leaning back into the stairway the co-pilot said, “O.K. sergeant, get that shit loaded.”
Before I could get to the back of the plane, a forklift with a jeep on a pallet was lining up and moving onto the back-end rollers. “Easy now,” I yelled over the noise, not wanting the pallet to hit the side of the plane. “OK, lower,” I yelled, pointing my right thumb down while holding my left hand up indicating a cautious movement to the driver. The plane rocked as the jeep in its wooden cradle settled onto the rollers and the forklift backed out.
Yelling at the Army sergeant, “Hey. Give me a hand,” we slid the jeep toward the front of the plane against the pallet of jerry cans and strapped it down. Before we finished, I could see the forklift approaching the rear with another jeep.
“Hurry up, sergeant,” these engines are loading up and starting to miss,” yelled the co-pilot as he advanced the throttles briefly, to clear the fuel out of the thirty-six cylinders of the engines. Turning to the back of the plane as the engine noise subsided, I could hear the swearing and commotion of the Army troops chasing their gear blown around by the prop wash.
“Holy shit! What does that thing weigh?” I yelled at the sight of the second jeep. It appeared bigger than the first, and had an anti-tank weapon mounted on it, but in addition to the cannon that just cleared the top of the plane, it was heavily armored.
“Don’t know,” yelled a voice from the back ranks. “Don’t matter no how. You Air Force pukes gotta take it anyway.”
I looked at the armored jeep and thought: Christ, this thing probably weighs half again what the standard jeep weighs and it’s on the back of the plane. We need to unload and put this one on first to get the center of gravity within flight limits.
As I turned toward the cockpit, the pilot yelled down the stairway, “Get that stuff tied down now. We’ve got to go.”
“Yes, sir,” I yelled as a refrigerator-sized man pivoted onto the back of the plane and started barking orders.
From the back I could see the second lieutenant bars on his shoulders and the dark area on his sleeves where stripes used to be. As he turned toward me, glancing around the cargo area, sizing it up, I could see the chin strap on his helmet drawn tight against his pockmarked, dark face pulling it down near his eyes. Without any acknowledgment, he turned and shouted, “Get your sorry asses up here. Now!”
Twenty paratroopers in full gear lined up behind the plane in two lines of ten and began climbing into the plane while I was strapping down the load. Bumping into me with their packs, parachutes and rifles they filed to each side of the strapped cargo and connected the static lines of their chutes to an overhead cable following rigorous commands barked by their officer. Christ! Twenty troops in battle gear must be another four or five thousand pounds.
Struggling past the line of troops, I entered the cockpit stairway and yelled, “Sir, I think we have an excess load and an aft CG.”
“What do you mean excess load? How much and how far back?” the pilot said in a pissed off tone. “You’re the load master. What the fuck are you doing back there?”
“Sir,” I replied, quickly calculating, “That armored jeep is half again the weight of a standard jeep. That’s 6,000 pounds, plus twenty troops at 250 pounds is another 5,000 pounds, plus our original load of 2,000 puts us at 13,750, and the armored jeep is twenty feet aft. That’s 3,750 pounds over with an aft CG.”
My load analysis was interrupted by the static of a radio call as the co-pilot said, “I just heard an emergency fire support call on 121.5.”
The pilot did some mental calculations and turned to the co-pilot and said, “Lieutenant, how much fuel have we burned?”
“Roughly 500 pounds, Sir.”
“Less 500 pounds of fuel, puts us twenty percent over our single engine emergency limit and an unknown aft CG. What do you say?”
“Let’s go, Captain,” said the co-pilot.
Turning to me he said, “OK, Sergeant, strap ’em in and move ’em forward. Lieutenant, short field take off procedure. Set full down elevator trim and dump full flaps when we pass the 3,000-foot runway marker. Engineer, I want full METO power.”
The engines in the C-119 were special: Unlike previous aircraft, there were no throttle stops, meaning the output power could be increased until the engines literally exploded, but under extreme conditions, that additional power could be available. Maximum extended takeoff power was the limit, and controlling that power without engine damage was the job of the flight engineer.
Stepping out of the cockpit stairwell and back into the cargo area, I yelled over the engines, “Lieutenant, we need everyone forward for takeoff. Just slide your static lines forward as you move.”
“Ten’ hut,” yelled the Army lieutenant, and the two rows of paratroops stood to attention. “You heard the sergeant. Move ’em forward. Bunch ’em up. The Air Force wants you standing forward and we don’t want to disappoint those pukes.”
Shuffling, bumping, and moving in baby-step confusion with one hand above their heads, sliding their static line clasp, they moved forward as the plane turned sharply on the PSP runway and then abruptly stopped as the engines roared to maximum extended takeoff power.
The facade of bravado left the faces of the paratroops as the brakes were released, and the plane accelerated with an ear-deafening engine roar down the runway, leaving behind a spray of mist from the tires and props, swirling into the open back of the plane. Still standing forward, along the sides of the plane, the troops lost their balance, tumbling like rows of dominoes, as the flaps deployed and the plane pitched up leaving the runway. The weight of the rear jeep caused the nose to rise so violently that PSP filled the view out the back as the plane appeared to go straight up. Then just as quickly, the plane leveled out, the negative g’s causing a sick sensation in our stomachs, now throwing the troops forward. Their faces were now white with fear, a fear that was compounded with a crashing sound on the bottom of the fuselage as jungle foliage flew behind us.
For another minute the engines fought the struggling airplane into the air, and then I heard the engine sound subside to gentler roar as the throttles were retarded to maximum climb. But the climb wasn’t normal, maybe a hundred feet per minute at best, and we were rapidly approaching enemy territory.
Flying over enemy territory at less than two thousand feet was well within the range of small arms fire.
Furthermore, we were only twenty minutes from the drop zone, and at this rate-of-climb they will have to do a low jump with little time to get ready.
Ten minutes out we only had a thousand feet, and with only ten minutes to go, the yellow light came on. The paratroops were already going through their routine of checking their static lines and equipment, and then their buddies, giving each other a helmet slap to confirm their jump status.
Moving to the rear of the plane, I unbuckled all but two web straps on the armored jeep and extended the ripcord handle from the jeep’s parachute pack to the front. When the yellow light flashed, I would release the last two straps, and when it turned green, pull the ripcord handle. There, yellow flash! I leaned over and unbuckled the last straps. Green! I pulled the ripcord.
A small pilot chute fluttered into the slipstream, flying below the horizontal stabilizer that spanned the twin booms of the cargo plane, pulling out three large chutes that opened together. The connecting shroud line instantly tightened and jerked the jeep out of the plane with a sharp bang. I grabbed a web strap as the plane violently bucked with the change in weight, rising, diving, the engines surging and then everything stabilizing as the pilots regained control, and turned for another pass.
The yellow light was on again. Unbuckling the straps on the second jeep, I pushed it toward the rear with the help of the paratroops who kept it centered on the opening. Sweat formed on my forehead as I realized the futility of holding onto two thousand pounds of loose cargo, waiting to careen into us or the sides of the plane with the next turbulence. The flashing yellow turned green and I pulled the ripcord. Again the pilot chute pulled the main chutes to full bloom jerking the jeep out of the plane with the same violence, and then the plane was turning again with the yellow light flashing.
As the plane leveled out, the yellow light turned green. The lieutenant yelled, “Go. Go! Go!” and they marched out the back of the plane eager to go to battle. As the last man jumped, the lieutenant turned to me, smiled, gave a thumbs up, and was gone. I looked out the back of the plane as we started a normal climb, and saw the last of the silk chutes bloom and then collapse as they quickly reached the ground.
Now out of small arms range, the rest of the flight would be a routine drop, and return to our forward base. Holding on to the edge of the opening, I leaned out into the slipstream and hooked my arm around the ten static lines dangling behind the plane, and pulled them inside, doing the same on the other side, and thinking while looking at the empty ends of the static lines: Their faces were white with fear from the unknowns of a plane ride, but those same faces exuded confidence, as they bravely jumped into the unknowns of a war.
Fred Fredine is an Air Force veteran (Staff Sergeant, 1954-58), graduate of Ball State University (BS A&S Physics & Math), Engineer (Navy civilian, 28 years), and pilot (CFI) . Now retired, he lives with wife of fifty-three years in Indiana. He enjoys competitive shooting, flying RC model airplanes, and writing military fiction.