It was steaming hot in the Caribou, a cargo plane that looked like an abbreviated C-130 Hercules. It had a rear cargo ramp that would permit the passage of a single pallet which made it a good fit for small drops into remote outposts. We could load three pallets in a row for aerial drop, making for about the same load a crammed deuce and a half truck could haul. Maybe a little more. Thing is, we could put our deliveries in places no truck could even consider approaching. Even with only two engines to the Hercules’ four, it still had impressive short field capabilities for takeoff and landing, no less the ability to drop parachute loads or dump and bumps where we shoved the load out with a drogue chute a few feet off the ground. The latter was the go to move for a really hot LZ where the crew didn’t want to spend one more second than necessary under the guns of homicidal enemy.
Our pilots for the day were a couple of Canadians and me and a guy named Fernandez were the load pushers. This was Fernandez’ first week in country and he was nervous as a cat.
“Hey, man…” I said to him as he sat staring out a side window.
“WHAT?” he screamed, flinging his canteen into the air and looking side to side to see what was no doubt on the verge of killing him.
“Whoa! Lighten up!” I said leaning down to pick up his canteen. I was just gonna tell you that we’re wheels up in a couple of minutes. It’s time to shut the bird up.”
“Oh. Sorry.” he said. “What do we do?”
“Well, it’s easier to show you but it’s simple.” I side shuffled to the back end of the plane and showed him how to close the ramp and make sure the side doors were shut. Although on this trip, I pinned the aft port door open to get some air movement through the cabin. “It’ll get pretty hot in here if you don’t.” I said. Then we did a lead check to make sure the pallets were properly on the rollers and strapped to the airframe D rings. We’d already done a rig check when the loads were outside so there was no reason to repeat that. Then I picked up the intercom phone and told the captain were tied for the ride. The starboard engine started turning up, coughed to life and then settled to a smooth idle. The port engine followed suit.
We waited about five minutes to get permission to taxi to the active runway. There was no wait there, as the nose pointed up the runway the pilot ran the throttles up and we accelerated and lifted off in no time at all. We sat at the base of the steps up to the flight deck and our pilot told us our ETA to drop was 30 minutes. The copilot opened a cooler and fetched out a few Dr. Peppers, the can cold with condensation dripping from them. “Happy to fly your crew any time, Boss.” I said smiling. It was about 100 degrees in the plane and after humping the cargo, Fernandez and I were damp with sweat. We both drained our cans and dropped them into a trash box. I tapped Fernandez (who jumped again) and pointed aft. I led us back to the loads and unstrapped them each, save a single throw over that would hold them and their cargo chutes in place. I then showed Fernandez how to hook the deployment bag strap to the static line, a thick steel cable that ran for and aft along the ceiling.
The pilot rang the buzzer that gave a 10 minute warning. I took this time to explain to Fernandez the safety lines we wore to keep from falling out of the plane and the order of releasing the final safety strap from each of the loads. “How do we get the loads out?” he asked.
I smiled and told him to press against the wall, stay out of the way, and the magic load fairy would take it from there. “Just stay clear of the load, get a stable place to stand and hang on.” About then the five minute buzzer went off and I unstrapped the second and last lead and Fernandez got the first. Being a newbie, I wanted him inboard as far as he could be so he’s still be with us when we landed back at base. The final buzzer went off and I yanked the lanyard that dropped the cog preventing the load from rolling backwards and stood off to the side, gripping the superstructure. The plane suddenly went nose up and the pilot added throttle and the pallets rolled smoothly back and off the ramp. Their descent yanked the big chutes out of the bag, blossoming them out like big green umbrellas that swung above the pallets. I always liked watching the loads drop, oscillating once or twice before contacting the ground with a soundless thump. They could be heard on the ground, but not in the aircraft that was filled with engine and prop noise, and the sounds of winds whipping around the cabin. When I saw three good landings as I collected up the deployment bags fluttering behind the ship and hit the ramp closed lever and the clamshell back of the aircraft closed up. There was still noise and exhaust smells coming through the still opened side door as we folded up the remains of our load straps and materials and piled them into a crate that a forklift would pick up at the base camp and haul back to the rigger area for use on another drop.
We headed forward to sit on the web seating for the short ride back to base. Fernandez just sat down when he kicked up a foot like a Rockette dancer. Bip, bip, bip! The plane banked heavily and someone from the flight deck called back that we were taking fire. Fernandez lay on the deck in a state of shock. I looked him over and didn’t see any blood, but I did see four holes in the cargo deck. The toe of Fernandez boot was chewed up. I untied his boot and pulled it off gently. His sock was also torn at the toe like his boot, but his foot was intact. “You lucky bastard!” I shouted at him, grinning.
“Lucky? I’m not lucky, I got shot man. I got shot!”
“I’ll but your boot in for a purple heart.” I said. “When it comes this close, you’re lucky man. You could be going home without a foot!”
“You didn’t say anything about getting shot at.” said Fernandez.
“Well, it doesn’t happen that often. You’re a lot more likely to fall out of the plane with the load or break your arm because you weren’t hanging on. But this is a war and surprise! People shoot at each other here. When we get back I’ll buy you a beer at the enlisted club and you can show everyone your boot and tell your story. You’re bound to have a few rounds bought for you.”
“Really?” he said, perking up.
“Hell yeah. You got a great story for yourself. I bet you’ll be telling it into your old age. I know I will.”