By Tech. Sgt. Michael Touchette, 120th Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office
/ Published September 21, 2016
GREAT FALLS, Mont. -- (This is the third in a five-part series on C-130 flight crews.)
Most modern vehicles come with an option for an electronic vehicle navigation system that allows a driver to plot a route to their destination to avoid traffic congestion and show way points such as gas stations or rest areas and determine the driver's time of arrival.
Even with all of the technology available to drivers, it pales in comparison with the skills of a United States Air Force navigator.
Navigators not only plot flight routes, but assess threats along the route, identify available airfields for emergency landings and serve as an extra set of eyes for the pilots during take-off, landing and throughout the flight, said 2nd Lt. Tammy Wajer, a navigator with the 120th Airlift Wing.
"As a navigator our responsibility is to ensure the customer receives the product they are requesting," Wajer said. "It could be paratroopers jumping out of the back of the aircraft, it can be heavy equipment which needs to be put onto a drop zone or it can be containerized delivery system bundles: beans and bullets is what most people call them."
"It's our responsibility to give the pilot the information they need to get to the drop zone on time," said Capt. Justin Hutchins, who also serves as a navigator with the 120th AW. "For mission planning we'll provide the charts and routes, calculate fuel requirements and then we'll determine the release point where we need to throw things out of the aircraft to get them where they need to be on the ground."
During the approach to a drop zone, navigators do a final analysis and direct the pilot's heading so when the load is dropped from the aircraft and the parachute is deployed it drifts to the desired location or point of impact, Wajer said.
"That's why we take an analysis of the winds and we fly to a certain position over the drop zone," Wajer said. "In theory, if everything goes as calculated and the wind analysis is 100 percent correct the cargo will land on the drop zone."
Although navigators make it look easy, the job is not for just anybody. Wajer said she spent nearly two years completing her Air Force navigator training.
"First, you must have your college education, so you have to have your bachelor's degree," Wajer said. "Then you need to take the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test and Test of Basic Aviation Skills exam, a motor skills test."
Once an individual passes the required exams they may apply for an open position with the unit, Wajer said.
If selected to become a navigator, candidates attend Officer Training School at the Academy of Military Science located at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, Wajer said.
Wajer said following AMS she attended Initial Flight Training, a 3-week preliminary flight training course located adjacent to the Pueblo Memorial Airport in Pueblo, Colorado, where navigators receive ground instruction in basic aeronautics, navigation and radio communication skills.
Navigators then attend Undergraduate Officer Combat Systems Officer Training at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, where they learn additional navigation techniques, weapons systems and electronic warfare, Wajer said.
This training consists of two phases, primary and advanced, which includes more than 500 hours of academic training and numerous flight hours, Hutchins said.
During the primary phase navigators complete 18 flights in the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II, a single-engine turboprop aircraft, as well as 12 simulator flights.
During the advanced phase navigators complete 19 flights in the T-1 Jayhawk, a twin-engine jet aircraft, as well as 46 simulator flights in high and low-level navigation, Hutchins said. The training exposes navigators to in-route navigation, air defense systems, electronic warfare support, air intercept and electronic attack.
Nearly seven months of C-130 Hercules specific training is conducted at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, where navigators receive their initial qualifications, Wajer said.
Wajer said navigators are also required to attend water survival and Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training located at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Washington.
Upon returning to the unit navigators go through indoctrination, a phase in which they fly with an instructor to ensure that their foundational training meets the standard, Wajer said. Once the criteria is met, and the instructor signs off on it, navigators can fly without an instructor.
"We come back home and we get 90 days of training and then we get our mission qualification here and are qualified to fly by ourselves," Hutchins said.
Although navigators have a lot to do during flights, Wajer said she does not consider her position more stressful than the jobs of other crew members.
"I think every position on the plane is equally stressful," Wajer said. "When you have 60 paratroopers walk up your ramp and get on the aircraft and they're depending on you to get them in the correct position over the drop zone so they can make that jump that's stressful," Wajer said. "You've got to be right because those people are depending on you not to get them hurt."
"It's a great job, but it's a lot of sacrifice and commitment," Hutchins said. "It's probably the most challenging thing I've done in my 14 year Air Force career."