Hitching A Ride On A Military Airlift

Cargo plane pilots have flown nearly half a million missions so far — helping to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One recent C-17 flight bound from Germany to Afghanistan carried some off-duty military personnel heading back to war, some crates and a shrink-wrapped C-130 propeller shaft. NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, went along for the ride.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Welcome back to All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. They are the stagehands of war. For the past seven years, the pilots and crews of cargo planes have flown into Iraq and Afghanistan every day, around the clock, nearly half a million flights, three million tons of cargo, more than seven million troops. On one recent flight, the cargo included NPR's Tom Bowman, up in the cockpit with the pilots.

Captain ANDREW PATRICK(ph) (Air Force Pilot): I'm Captain Andrew Patrick. I'm from Torrington, Wyoming.

Captain BRITNEY SMITH(ph) (Air Force Pilot): I'm Captain Britney Smith from Denver, Colorado.

Captain CALEB FROVINCIO(ph) (Air Force Pilot) Yeah, I'm Caleb Frovincio from Las Cruces, New Mexico.

TOM BOWMAN: It takes three pilots to share the 14-hour roundtrip from Germany to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. They make last-minute checks as they prepare to lift off from Ramstein Air Force Base. Onboard the C-17 Globe Master, the rear ramp falls. The plane swallows up its cargo, which slides into the bay on what look like train tracks. Wide nylon belts keep it all in place. Captain Frovincio has flown some 200 combats sorties on what is called the air bridge. He still marvels at what his plane can hold.

Captain FROVINCIO: Almost 150, 170 thousand pounds of cargo. So, I mean, eight Humvees.

BOWMAN: No Humvees in sight now. Captain Patrick gestures to this day's cargo. Long metal blades, like giant fingers, are perched on a pallet. They're shrink-wrapped.

Captain PATRICK: Sitting back there is a giant propeller from a C-130 aircraft. We're also carrying some registered mail.

BOWMAN: Soldiers lounge on top of those mail crates. Others open sleeping bags and plop on the cold metal floor. It's sort of a cross between a dorm room and a warehouse. To one side are metal bunk beds. There are tubes dangling alongside. They're checked by men and women in tan flight suits. Captain Patrick says they're doctors and nurses.

Captain PATRICK: The evac crew, the flight nurses and flight doctors, are there to safely transport wounded and ill soldiers from the forward edge of the battle back to hospital facilities, medical facilities, where they can receive, I guess, a higher level of care.

BOWMAN: The wounded troops will be on the flight back. This flight is carrying troops from R&R heading back into combat. In the cockpit, the pilots take turns napping in bunk beds just behind their seats. By the time they approach Afghanistan, all of them are awake and alert to the missile threat. The British lost a cargo plane to enemy fire in Iraq, says Patrick. So far, the Americans have been fortunate.

Captain PATRICK: You go in lights out. You try to stay as high as you can as long as possible.

BOWMAN: It's where a pilot's skill comes in.

Captain PATRICK: Try to use different speeds, try to be unpredictable.

BOWMAN: Their luck continues. They touch down in Bagram after midnight. The rear ramp opens into the darkness. A dusty breeze flows in. The mail, the propellers slide off the ramp. Combat soldiers grab their gear. And the wounded wait to come aboard. Tom Bowman, NPR News.

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