BAGRAM AIRBASE, Afghanistan—The nose of the Air Force C-130 cargo plane dips sharply as it hurtles toward the oncoming runway at one of this country’s largest military bases. It’s an alarming descent for the uninitiated, more used to the easy 3-degree glide path that most commercial jets employ.
But for pilots heading into Bagram, it’s the standard operating procedure. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans live within eight miles of the perimeter here, and Taliban fighters still operate among these towns.
In addition to the traditional threats from anti-aircraft weapons, insurgents have recently taken to shining high-powered lasers into the cockpits of oncoming planes in the hopes of searing the pilots’ eyes. Inbound aircraft turn off all interior lights to try to avoid detection.
This particular C-130 landing is further complicated by strong cross winds gusting up to 40 miles per hour, causing the craft to pitch, sway and dip as the runway appears larger in the front windows of the flight deck.
The crew almost scrubbed the mission after delivering pallets of cargo to Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan earlier on Wednesday. They picked up more cargo and about two dozen passengers who would enjoy a rather bumpy ride, then turned their attention to reports from ground crews at Bagram of the strengthening winds at the crew’s home base.
“This was right on the edge for us,” says Air Force Capt. Robert Schomaker, the aircraft commander. “You learn how to land in [high] winds.”
Schomaker can’t go into details about the evasive maneuvers he employed during the landing to stay beyond the range of potential enemy fire. He stands on the tarmac after the last mission of the day in his flight suit, stripped of all identifying information except for the American flag patch on his arm. “In case something bad happens,” is all he offers.
Ground security forces at Bagram have been able to reduce the number of attacks on this base by 47 percent in the last year, but there is a still a threat from the outlying community. These airmen, who spend their time patrolling local towns in oversized MRAPS and conducting counterinsurgency operations, still face threats from improvised explosive devices and small arms fire.
A unit of the Air Force’s elite pararescuemen are based at Bagram, and have plucked several pilots and crew from downed aircraft since last fall, a commanding officer tells U.S. News.
Twenty-four hours a day, the flight line at Bagram remains a critical lifeline for all operations in Afghanistan, including as the main hub for evacuating wounded troops from across the warzone who need high-stakes medical attention that’s only available at bases like this.
Check out these photos for a look inside this mission from Bagram to Kandahar and back:
This C-130, piloted by Schomaker and his crew, was built in 1974 and is shared by all of the other crews in this air wing. Each of these planes has its own quirks, Shomaker points out. The air conditioning in this particular craft went on the fritz during the return flight.
Mountains of the Hindu Kush make up much of the periphery from the flight deck after first departing Bagram.
The crew prepares to descend into Kandahar Air Field, which used to be a Taliban stronghold before becoming a massive coalition air base.
Welcome to Kandahar. Capt. Robert Schomaker turns to his co-pilot after successfully landing.
Kandahar is one of the largest airports in the country, serving hundreds of coalition aircraft based there as well as commercial flights from regional countries.
A UH-60 Blackhawk and an F-16 Falcon take off simulateously from the airstrip.
Ready to return to Bagram. The crew has completed initial calculations of the wind speed at the home base, as well as temperature of the air. Aircraft Commander Capt. Robert Schomaker decides the conditions are within his and the crew's abilities.
The C-130 begins its descent into Bagram airfield as the sun sets over the mountains that surround the base.
The cargo plane begins to drop to a sharp angle to begin its combat landing.