Exercise Ultimate Reach up close

Pilots from the 437th Airlift Wing conduct their preflight checks aboard a C-17 Globemaster III at Zaragoza, Spain, Nov. 7, 2015, during exercise Ultimate Reach 16-1. The exercise is an annual U.S. Transportation Command sponsored, live-fly exercise designed to test the ability of 18th Air Force to plan and conduct strategic airdrop missions with the 82nd Airborne Division. Four C-17 Globemaster IIIs from the 437th Airlift Squadron out of Joint Base Charleston, S.C., participated in a seven-ship formation to airdrop more than 500 U.S. Army and Spanish military jumpers. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Jared Trimarchi)

Pilots from the 437th Airlift Wing conduct their preflight checks aboard a C-17 Globemaster III at Zaragoza, Spain, Nov. 7, 2015, during exercise Ultimate Reach 16-1. The exercise is an annual U.S. Transportation Command sponsored, live-fly exercise designed to test the ability of 18th Air Force to plan and conduct strategic airdrop missions with the 82nd Airborne Division. Four C-17 Globemaster IIIs from the 437th Airlift Squadron out of Joint Base Charleston, S.C., participated in a seven-ship formation to airdrop more than 500 U.S. Army and Spanish military jumpers. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Jared Trimarchi)

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. -- I have been part of the Air Force for five years, and I've seen numerous C-17 Globemaster III's in the air or heard them while spending time with my family. However, I never really thought about where the plane was heading or what was inside.

After experiencing exercise Ultimate Reach 16-1 and traveling half-way around the world to airdrop the Soldiers of 82nd Airborne Division in the middle of Spain, I now have the answer to the question I never asked.

The C-17 can fly to all the corners of the globe and can carry just about anything. One of the loadmasters I met during Ultimate Reach, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Akers from the 16th Airlift Squadron, said a C-17 once airlifted an Orca. We weren't carrying a whale, but our load could have done a lot more damage if dropped from the sky.

The drop into Spain:
It was 11:30 p.m. on the flightline of Pope Army Airfield, N.C., It was lightly raining outside, and I was inside a C-17 with 60 Paratroopers and a full aircrew made up of Airmen from the 437th Airlift Wing.

Our C-17 was about to take off with six other C-17s full of Soldiers ready to conduct the training necessary to ensure their skills are honed for the critical mission of defending our nation.

Two jump masters were on our plane; they both grabbed a thin piece of white cloth and began to inspect the jump lines installed on the aircraft. They were looking for frays in the cables and ensuring the line was clear of debris. They walked once from the front of the plane to the rear closely ensuing the integrity of the line. Then, they did it again.

A famous saying goes, "Measure twice, cut once." You could tell the jump masters were serious about their job and double checking is part of their way of life. They were working hand-in-hand with the two loadmasters, whose mission is ensuring the safety of all passengers aboard the C-17.

If you have never been inside a C-17, think of the last commercial jet you were on but double the size (in most cases) then imagine the following:, gut the middle, place two rows of "seats" alongside the walls of the plane and add a row of double sided seats along the middle. Doesn't sound very comfortable does it? Next, imagine 60 Paratroopers with 150 pounds of gear each needing to jump out of that commercial airliner. They require space to move around and prepare their gear mid-flight; the C-17 provides that.

The take-off was smooth and I mentally applauded the pilots. I'm not afraid of flying but when the plane is experiencing turbulence and my stomach is in knots, I tend to hold on to my seat a little tighter.

To avoid having to land to refuel, KC-10 Extenders from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst met us in midair to gas up. A flying gas station - - sounds a lot like a science fiction movie.

If you have ever been on a plane during a bad storm and you feel like you are experiencing an earthquake at 30,000 feet, aerial refueling is a lot like that.  At least to me it was. I noticed my grip got tighter too.

I looked up during the refueling. The aircrew and ¬Soldiers were acting as if nothing abnormal was happening. An Army staff sergeant, Ken Yurchak, sat in front of me. He was the nicest person you could ever meet but looked like he could scare a mother bear away from her cub. He was about six feet tall, built like a tank and as calm as could be. 

I realized something during that moment; these guys were about to jump out of a perfectly good airplane from 1,000 feet in the air. For them, being on the plane even during the bumps was the easy part. They trusted the loadmasters and pilots so much most of them never even woke up during the refueling. I loosened my grip.

Six hours into the flight I'm awoken by an Army Captain yelling at his troops telling them it's time to load up. Next to Yurchak the tank sat another staff sergeant, Jonathan Andrews. Again, the nicest person in the world but when it was time to check the parachute and gear of the Soldiers in his command, his persona changed.

"Next!" he yelled to the following troop to be inspected. Every Soldier put on their gear at the same time while the plane is still mid-flight. Andrews did at least a 100-point check to the parachute, harness, rucksack, weapon case and helmet to each of his Soldiers. Then, he did it again.

His face was serious and he was firm with his inspections. He reminded me of a father protecting his children. He treated each Soldier as his own son. Sure he was a little firm but when lives are at risk, he ensured everything was perfect. It took two hours for everyone to be loaded with a parachute, inspected and ready to go.

The sun was creeping inside the C-17 when I was invited to the flight deck to talk to the pilots. Everyone thinks fighter pilots are the coolest people thanks to the movie Top Gun, but C-17 pilots are just as cool.

Some people might think that flying a C-17 is a lot like driving a bus through the air but they don't realize how fast and nimble a C-17 really is. I got a first-hand experience when I felt my insides being pulled down onto the seat during a sharp turn. The only way you're going to feel that on a bus is if it drives off a cliff.

We started our descent towards Zaragoza, Spain, where the airdrops were going to take place. We were part of a greater NATO exercise named Trident Juncture.

I heard a voice over the speaker aboard the C-17 say, "10 minutes." The chatter aboard the C-17 came to a stop.

The tension on the flight deck was just as high as the Soldiers who were lined up, hooked up and standing by for a green light. The pilots were just like Andrews. They were treating the Soldiers like their own children; ensuring the safety of each one was their top priority. They wanted to ensure the airspeed, the location of the drop zone and the weather was perfect before they gave the go-ahead.

The lights aboard the C-17 are just like a stoplight; red, yellow and green. The light switched from red to yellow. I couldn't image what was going on in the minds of those brave souls who were about to face an open aircraft door. You could hear the 130 knots wind screaming inside the C-17. Would you jump? What if your chute doesn't open? What if you break a leg?

Green light. The jump master yelled go and off they went, one at a time, out the sides of the C-17. They marched to the edge of the door and, one by one, they disappeared into the sky. Less than 60 seconds later, all jumpers had been airdropped and all chutes opened. Mission accomplished.

The drop home:
It was 10:30 p.m. in Spain and, again, I'm aboard a C-17 with a group of Soldiers awaiting take-off. Maybe because we were heading home, everyone seemed a little more excited to jump out.

The biggest difference from the first jump beside the location was the time of day. The Soldiers of the 82nd were going to perform a night jump.

Talking to Andrews he said a night jump is much scarier. You don't know how fast you're going and how close the ground is. I've never jumped out of an airplane but, if I had a choice, I would sure love to have my eyesight.

Talking to the loadmasters they all agreed doing airdrops was one of the cooler parts of their jobs. They love working with the Soldiers and love the feeling of a job well done when all land safely.

Many hours into the flight, after the Soldiers are loaded up and ready to go, the inside of the C-17 was illuminated by red lights, and a group of them hooked up to the jump line. I was taking photos of the jump and one of the Soldiers was singing. The other was smiling at the camera like he'd just won the lottery.

I pictured myself in their boots. The photos of me standing in line waiting to jump out the back of a C-17 would not be for public release. The light turned yellow and the singing stopped.

The green light turned on and the march to the middle of darkness began. Again, one-by-one they disappeared; this time into the night sky.

We did two passes that night and, again, the pilots and loadmasters were proud all chutes opened and the Soldiers landed safely on the ground.

Conclusion:
Now every time I see a C-17 flying high above me on my way to work, I think about the experience I had with the pilots, loadmasters and Soldiers. I think about where they could be heading and what could be inside.

The answer is anywhere and anything. The C-17 puts the "air" in airborne and I have a new appreciation for the men and women who travel all around the world, leaving their families behind to airlift the power of the U.S. military anywhere in the world.