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C-130 Pilot Recounts How Training Paid Off in Combat

Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Kelly retrieves straps after an airdrop over Afghanistan March 2, 2010. Sergeant Kelly is deployed from the Rhode Island National Guard's 135th Airlift Squadron, and is from Baltimore, Md.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jeromy K. Cross)

Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Kelly retrieves static lines after his second airdrop of the day over Afghanistan March 2, 2010. Sergeant Kelly is deployed from the Maryland Air National Guard's 135th Airlift Squadron, from Baltimore, Md. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jeromy K. Cross)

BALTIMORE -- "As the lead aircraft was dropping their load, we received a call from the drop zone informing us that we were taking enemy fire from the ground," said Maj. Gary Laubach, a C-130J pilot assigned to Maryland Air National Guard's 135th Airlift Squadron. "At the same time, the crew observed tracer fire in front of our aircraft coming from the right side."

It was March 2, 2010, and Major Laubach, copilot 1st Lt. Dean Mouritzen and loadmasters Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Kelly and Senior Airman Aja Ledbetter had been in Afghanistan for just under two months as part of the 135th's latest deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

On the night they came under attack, they were preparing to airdrop 12,400 lbs. of badly needed ammunition, food and water to a forward operating base in southern Afghanistan - a base where Afghan insurgents had attempted to shoot down resupply aircraft in the past.

"The mission was conducted at night because of the known threat in the area, with previous aircraft taking enemy fire," Major Laubach said. The ability to fly at night using night vision goggles normally provides some measure of protection from hostile fire, but in this case clear skies and a full moon illuminated the aircraft "like a spotlight."

Despite the tracers rising up at their aircraft, the crew decided to proceed with the drop. As soon as the airdrop load had cleared the aircraft, the Maryland C-130J performed a combat escape and "immediately egressed the area." The drop zone later reported that the load had landed on target.

"After climbing up to a safe altitude, we conducted a battle damage assessment and determined that we had not sustained any damage," Major Laubach said. The aircraft then returned to its base at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, where maintenance crews gave it a thorough examination before the crew loaded it up for their next mission.

It was during this second a mission of the day that they came under fire from what is believed to have been a surface-to-air missile. The crew immediately reacted to the threat and again escaped harm.

According to Major Laubach, training is key to enabling fliers to function effectively in a high-pressure, time-constrained environment. "No matter how much you prepare for the mission, it all boils down to the last 10 minutes, when everything seems to happen at once."

He credited the realistic training Maryland Air Guardsmen conduct at their home station, Warfield Air National Guard Base in Baltimore, with enabling the crew to focus on carrying out their mission despite the enemy anti-aircraft fire.

"These are exactly the types of missions we train for every day back home," Major Laubach said. "Although we may touch up on some of the newest techniques being used in the combat theater in the months prior to the deployment, we are ready to go execute the mission anywhere at any time."