By Michael Golembesky
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The U.S. Air Force is unmatched in its airlift capabilities to deploy troops and equipment anywhere in the world, all with the assistance and hard work of its air transportation team.
The Fort Carson Arrival/Departure Airfield Control Group located at the southern end of the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport is the gateway for every deploying and returning unit from Fort Carson and surrounding military installations in the Pikes Peak region — and it is staffed by a team of 21st Logistics Readiness Squadron Airmen.
“They can’t move without us — our sole purpose is to move people and equipment, it is what we do,” said Tech Sgt. Allan Skelton, 21st LRS NCOIC for air terminal operations.
The mission is executed by a small team of 15 Airmen from Peterson’s 21st LRS air terminal operations unit, which is also responsible for running the Peterson passenger terminal and scheduling space-available flights for active duty and retired service members in the area.
“We are the embarkation handlers for all military units in the Colorado Springs area. Our Airmen are outstanding — 10 active duty and five active Reserve. They are resilient, flexible and good at what they do — moving America’s military force,” said Skelton.
The work of transporting personnel and equipment begins long before the aircraft lands on the runway and is designed to be as efficient as possible.
“We are the middle man; the Army is our customer and we get them to where they need to go. The Army relies on us to inspect their cargo, manifest the shipment and load it onto the aircraft,” said Skelton.
Another key responsibility of the 21st LRS air terminal team is to develop a load plan for the cargo. This helps the loadmasters aboard the aircraft and makes for quicker turnaround times on the tarmac.
“When building the load plan, we ensure all of the weights are correct, proper center of balance on the vehicles and configure them for flight,” said Skelton. “It’s like a game of Tetris, but the aircraft’s loadmasters have the final say, they know their aircraft better than we do.”
The Peterson air terminal team is already in position when the aircraft — normally a C-17 Globemaster III — lands and is taxied into position for loading.
“Attention to detail is key in everything we do,” said Skelton. “Safety is the most important thing here. When we have a lot of loading vehicles out there it can get a little squirrelly. Everyone has to know where they are at and what everyone else is doing.”
With such an emphasis on safety, the air terminal team must be confident in the skills and experience of their fellow wingmen.
“We train everyone on our crews to be able to function in any of the roles needed, from operating the forklifts to securing the cargo. You have to know how to do everything if you are going to be effective at getting the troops to where they need to be,” said Skelton.
One of the last steps of the loading process is securing the cargo to the aircraft, which is by-far the most important step when it comes to the safety of the aircraft and crew when in flight.
“It is a critical step; it’s not like loading a flatbed truck. The cargo can be subjected to four and a half Gs (force of gravity) of turbulence; it has to be restrained from moving in any direction,” said Skelton.
“When you get really heavy vehicles, all of the chains may look like overkill but they are needed to keep the load from shifting and endangering the aircraft and its crew.”
A lot goes into the embarkation process and can sometimes be a frustrating event for deploying units. As for the 21st LRS air terminal team, remaining flexible and focused is a necessity.
“You have to have good customer relations with everyone you are dealing with, from the units to the flight crews. It’s movement with a purpose,” said Skelton. “You have to be able to deal with problems on-the-fly and explain to people that we are loading stuff onto a million-dollar aircraft and must keep everyone onboard safe so they can accomplish their mission.”