July 14, 2014 (by A1C Shelby Kay-Fantozzi) - The first continuous mission around the world for the MC-130J Commando II, Air Force Special Operations Command’s newest platform, ended successfully July 9 with the aircraft’s safe return to Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico.
USAF MC-130J (09-5711) Commando II maintainers gather to welcome the aircraft and its crew home from a nearly four-week mission around the world on July 9, 2014, at Cannon AFB. The mission was the first of its kind for Air Force Special Operations’ newest aircraft. [USAF photo by A1C Shelby Kay-Fantozzi]
The MC-130J’s historic mission, which spanned five continents and approximately 28,000 statute miles, was to escort single-engine AFSOC aircraft to a destination in the Pacific Area of Responsibility.
“This journey included several long flights, so the purpose of our aircraft was to ensure personnel recovery in case anything went wrong,” said Lt. Col. Nathaniel Jones, 522nd Special Operations Squadron acting operations officer.
A diverse group of Airmen had to work together to safeguard the aircraft and keep the mission running smoothly.
“We had a team of 26 all together,” said Capt. Mary Spafford, 522 SOS combat systems officer. “We had our aircrew, maintainers for the 522nd, pararescuemen from the 308th Rescue Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base [Florida], and the crews from the aircraft we were escorting. All of those packages—maintenance, ops, and rescue—came together to get the mission done.”
The true triumph of the mission, according to Jones, is the teamwork it took for units from the 27th Special Operations Wing and the 1st Special Operations Wing to support each other.
“The planning efforts of the crew were a major highlight of the mission,” said Jones. “They had to marry up two sets of plans, and staying aligned was key. Crews were focusing down to the hour to work within clearances to fly over certain places.”
Clear communication was essential in the air and on the ground, as landing in countries all around the world called for renewed attentiveness and flexibility at each destination.
“It definitely required everyone to be vigilant and understand their respective roles,” said Capt. Cooper Livingston, 522 SOS pilot, and the copilot for this mission. “With so many different groups and agencies working together, we had to stay on the same page.”
Learning how to interact with other countries was both a challenge and a learning experience for the crew.
“We encountered so many different cultures and perspectives,” said Livingston. “It was a really interesting dynamic. Depending on where you were, you had to tailor your mannerisms and way of speaking. It definitely required close attention.”
Stops for rest and refueling allowed the team to explore locales that many never get a chance to see.
“A lot of people join the Air Force to see the world,” said Senior Airman Tyler Julyan, 522 SOS MC-130J loadmaster. “We actually got to do it.”
The crew collectively cited Tanzania, Sri Lanka and Japan as some of their favorite stops overseas.
“Riding an elephant in Sri Lanka was the highlight of my experience,” said Livingston. “As an Alabama grad, being able to see our mascot up close was just really cool.”
The crew also climbed Mt. Fuji, toting hiking sticks that were stamped from bottom to top with elevations to mark the climbers’ progress up the mountain.
In spite of the adventures the crew found overseas, the high point of the trip remained the high points of the mission itself—the first day, and the day all three aircraft were successfully dropped off at their final destination.
“We got to see and do some amazing things, but the point was the escort,” said Maj. Matthew Weinschenker, 522 SOS pilot and mission commander.
By all accounts, the MC-130J’s escort mission was a success.
“It’s almost unheard of for an aircraft to go around the world with no major breaks or delays,” said Spafford. “Every time the mission called for it, the crews just got up and pushed. We had a lot of different squadrons with a lot of different objectives, but we all pulled together to achieve the main objective of the mission.”
The crew made the best of their rare opportunity not only to work with various squadrons around the country but also to demonstrate the capabilities of the U.S. Air Force around the world.
“For 27 days we were out there doing the mission,” said Weinschenker. “We all made it back safe and people all over the world saw what we’re capable of.”
After nearly four weeks of constant motion, the crew was relieved to return to Cannon.
“It was a long trip, but it was definitely worth it,” said Spafford. “It’s great to be back on U.S. soil.”