Senior Airman Kayla Russell watches the rear door of her C-5 Galaxy open, as fingers of the dawn’s red glow crawl through the cargo hold, illuminating nearly a half dozen helicopters and Humvees she and her fellow loadmasters are deliveringto a remote African air base.
She takes a moment to enjoy the sun’s caressing warmth on her skin while her eyes adjust to the sudden rays of light. She gasps at the beauty of the African savanna before her that looks like a scene from The Lion King.
Moments like this are some of the professional benefits the 26-year-old loadmaster enjoys most. In the two years she’s been in her career field, she’s traveled to 18 countries logging nearly 1,000 flying hours.
But Russell doesn’t take pride in how many hours she’s flown. It’s the stains, rips and tears on her flight suits that accumulate through the course of her duties that she’s most proud of. Once one becomes unserviceable, it joins the growing collection tucked neatly away in her closet.
“I look at my flight suit and see accomplishments, record setting loads, I see experiences of bringing people home,” she said. “They serve as a reminder for the places I’ve been, the memories I have of loading specific cargo.”
As an Arby’s manager in Sylva, North Carolina, just a few years ago, Russell said she would have never believed she’d one day travel the globe in service to her country.
“When I was there, I kind of had an idea of what a loadmaster did but didn’t understand the sheer magnitude of what I would have done,” she said. “If you would have asked me, ‘How many countries do you think you’d go to?’ I wouldn’t have had the slightest clue that I would have been to 18 different countries. I wouldn’t have seen the world as I have seen it.”
In each new place she visits, she thinks about her family and how she’d love to share the memory with them, but she takes solace knowing she’s found a new family far away from the one she left in Waynesville, North Carolina, when she joined the Air Force. She’s now a Proud Pelican, a member of the 9th Airlift Squadron at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.
“Our superintendent says it right: when we get a new (Airman) in, during our roll call, he’ll say, ‘Welcome. This is your new family,’” she said. “That’s true to a T.
“You spend the majority of your time with them on the road. There are a lot of times when you’re overseas and something happens back home, but you can’t get home right away and you have your crew to be your family,” Russell continued. “They’re the comforters, the ones who pick you up when you’re down. They make you excited about the job.”
The job of an Air Force loadmaster entails being the technical expert for cargo loading operations for an assigned airframe.
“Just like I’m an expert on the C-5, within the cargo loading, we’re responsible for making sure the cargo doesn’t exceed aircraft limits, the weight and balance for the aircraft as well as passenger loading operations,” said Master Sgt. Marc Gonsalves, the assistant loadmaster superintendent with the 9th AS.
“Whenever we land downrange, we have to hit the ground running,” Gonsalves said. “Typically, we’ll have quite a bit of cargo that’s going to the deployed location, so once we get there, we have to work with the aerial porters to download the cargo and upload any cargo that needs to come back to the United States.”
Often, that means playing one of the world’s trickiest games of Tetris as the loadmaster crews must configure a cargo load with the maximum amount of efficiency in the C-5’s 143 feet length of cargo space.
Becoming a Tetris expert on the C-5 begins when a new loadmaster attends months of training at the basic loadmaster and aircrew qualification courses in San Antonio. Afterward, student loadmasters travel to their new bases, where they continue training and will eventually shadow an instructor loadmaster on their first flights.
“When we get a mission tasking, we pair instructors with students and we take them out on operational missions and teach them, over a course of time and over a number of missions, how to be a successful loadmaster,” Gonsalves said. “It can be a little overwhelming at first because there’s so much going on and it takes a lot of situational awareness, a lot of time management. But over time, as we’re flying with them and teaching them the do’s and don’ts of being a loadmaster, they start to build that confidence and that capability to perform the job.”
Senior Airman Kevin Robinson fondly remembers his first mission. He was so nervous as he walked into the C-5, he tripped over the aircrew’s stack of suitcases and sent them flying across the floor. He quickly earned the nickname “Baby Giraffe.”
“My first mission was intimidating; I was afraid to touch anything for fear of breaking something,” Robinson said. “You’re on this big jet and loading massive things like Humvees and helicopters. I was definitely questioning whether I made the right decision or not. It’s one of those things where it’s a culture shock, and then you realize that you still have work to do. I stayed with it and made it through.”
Had he not kept with it, Robinson wouldn’t have had the opportunity to participate in the retrograde operations in late 2014, where C-5M Super Galaxies, C-17 Globemaster IIIs and C-130 Hercules from Dover AFB and other Air Force bases transported equipment and personnel out of Afghanistan as part of the drawdown efforts in the country.
Because of the C-5’s ability to hold 36 pallets and carry more than 280,000 pounds of cargo, it was an obvious choice to transport oversized and heavy cargo. When the retrograde was complete, Dover AFB’s C-5Ms flew more than 1,000 hours on 152 missions and carried nearly 25.5 million pounds of cargo, including breaking a single-mission, load-carrying record of 280,880 pounds of cargo, according to Air Force reports.
“We were constantly trying to strive to break the record loads. It was like a big puzzle,” Russell said. “When we’d land, we’d find we had 20 feet worth of space, and we had to figure out how to use the airplane for the maximum capacity and efficiency. That’s what we were constantly doing with the operations people and load planners. It was a great partnership. They kept trying to push the envelope, and we were right there with them.”
Breaking a record doesn’t just serve as a feather in the loadmaster’s cap. Russell said it shows Air Force leaders how effective the C-5 and its aircrews are at performing their mission, and today, they’re reaping the benefits of their hard work with increased mission taskings.
“We were operating at high efficiency,” she said. “If you look at our mission tempo now, it’s proof that we showed what the C-5M could do.”
Breaking the cargo record that resulted in more work for the C-5M loadmasters might not have been possible in years past before the C-5M was introduced to the fleet. However, Gonsalves said the updated model offers Air Force leaders the ability to transport heavier cargos farther.
“We’ve done things with this airframe that some people never thought possible. The fact that we have this new updated aircraft that we’re continuously trying to push the boundaries and see what it’s capable of, people take a lot of pride in that,” he said. “It allows us to fly farther, keep the mission moving and support taskings that come down that we’re required to be apart of.”
And as the C-5 loadmaster’s missions continue to stack up, so will Russell’s growing collection of ripped, torn and stained flight suits. But that’s OK because each one represents another accomplishment in her career.