Building the Crew - Loadmasters

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Michael Touchette
  • 120th Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office
(This is the first of a five-part series on C-130 Hercules flight crews.)

Loadmasters are enlisted flight crew members aboard a C-130 Hercules aircraft who are responsible for properly loading, securing and accompanying cargo and passengers. From calculating proper weight distribution to providing for passenger comfort throughout the flight, loadmasters safeguard equipment and personnel on flights around the world.

"The best part is flying with other units and being an integral part of the mission," said Senior Airman Jake Weisen, a loadmaster with the 120th Airlift Wing. "You know that what you're doing is important; you're helping others get trained up as well as training yourself."

Initial training to become a loadmaster begins with the Aircrew Fundamentals Course at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

"It's the first part: doing the math, knowing the inside of the aircraft, all the forms that you have to know for hazards and chemicals, all that kind of stuff," said Tech. Sgt. Brandon Garneau, a loadmaster with the 120th AW.

"That's the first area where they figure out if you are going to make it or not, if you're going to make it to the next step-to go to [Little Rock] Arkansas for five months," Garneau said.

Little Rock, Ark. is where loadmasters get initial training on their specific plane, C-130Hs, Garneau said.

"There is a lot of ground training and tests about everything on the plane on the inside; the hydraulics, how much it can hold, how much it can air drop, how many people you can hold, paratroopers," Garneau said. "They train you on all of that stuff and then you get to fly the last month."

Following the successful check ride at Little Rock, Ark., loadmasters have more training to accomplish before returning to their unit.

Loadmasters go to water survival and Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training once done with training in Arkansas, Garneau said.

The 336th Training Group, according to the Fairchild Air Force Base website, is home to the U.S. Air Force SERE School. The basic course lasts 19 days and teaches aircrew members the skills needed to survive on their own and evade the enemy until they can be rescued. Water survival training prepares aircrew to survive a crash landing over water and survive in the water following the crash.   
After returning to their unit a loadmaster's training continues.

"Once you come back you have to fulfill so many different kinds of flights semi-annually," said Tech. Sgt. Ramsey Witherite, a loadmaster with the 120th AW. "You have to do so many air drops, different kinds of air drops, and so many normal flights."

"You have to fly more than one weekend to stay current, you have to fly probably four times per month just to stay current," Garneau said.

When loadmasters are not flying they can usually be found in their area of the operations building, reading from iPads that hold their technical manuals or in a group discussing aspects of their job.

"Every year you have a check ride coming up, so you have to study for all of that, you have to keep up on your emergency procedures, you have to keep up on everything really," Garneau said. "You have a test, both open book and closed book test. Closed book is only like 20 questions. Open book is like 100, but you get to look through your iPad."

Both Witherite and Garneau said career progression as a loadmaster is contingent on experience and training. The lowest rung of the career ladder is the UL, or unqualified load, a loadmaster who failed to maintain their qualifications. An FL, or flying load is qualified to fly, an ML, or mission load, is a fully qualified mission ready loadmaster. An IL is an instructor and an EL is an evaluator, both fully trained and knowledgeable in the loadmaster career field.              

"You could just stay a loadmaster the whole time and eventually become an evaluator loadmaster-that is the top of the loadmaster world," Witherite said. 

There is also the potential to train into other flight crew positions: flight engineer, navigator or even pilot, said Garneau.  

"Flight engineer would be a downgrade for us though," Witherite said.

The room erupted with laughter at the comment. Despite the good-natured ribbing, it is obvious that the loadmasters have much respect for their fellow crew members.

"When flight engineers become pilots that's the best because they know everything about the plane," said Garneau. "Loadmasters know a lot about the plane, but FEs know everything." 

If you're interested in traveling a lot being a loadmaster is a good job to get into, according to Witherite, who entered the career field for that very reason. He was in avionics for six years before becoming a loadmaster and his only trip outside of Montana was to attend Airman Leadership School at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base located near Knoxville, Tenn.

Many of the unit's loadmasters cross-trained into the job after the need for their prior career fields was reduced or eliminated when the unit converted from a fighter mission to an airlift mission.

"I was a weapons loader. We lost our shop, so I had to go somewhere else," Garneau said. "It was either here or being a crew chief, because crew chiefs still have the opportunity to fly when we go on trips."

"Although it's a challenging career requiring a lot of commitment, selection is extremely competitive and most of the unit's vacancies have been filled," said Master Sgt. Ben Roth, noncommissioned officer in charge of Montana Air National Guard recruiting.

"There was a study done that showed this career field has the highest job satisfaction rating of any job in the military," Witherite said. "You're getting paid to fly around the world, not many people can say that and it's one of the biggest opportunities young Airmen look forward to."