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May 1, 2013

The High Risk Job of a Military Charter Loadmaster

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Written by: Phil Derner Jr.
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People jumped onto the internet Tuesday and saw the shockingly intense video of Monday’s National Airlines 747 crash that took place just after takeoff from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. Though it is so very early in the investigation, early speculation indicates that it may have been a shift in the cargo load on the aircraft, which looks like a real possibility according to the video.

The flight is said to have been carrying 5 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs). Weighing in at 14 tons each, a sudden movement in the cargo hold from 28,000 pounds on even a 747 could easily upset the aircraft’s center of gravity (CG) while the aircraft is working hard to gain both speed and altitude. If there was a shift, did a vehicle become loose from a pallet or were the pallets not properly locked down to the cargo deck on the aircraft? Either way, people around the internet are already beginning to cast blame on the loadmaster. I do not know this loadmaster, and I do not know the conditions with which he/she were working in, but the role is a little-known job that carries some big responsibility.

In the US military, a loadmaster is a member of flight crew whose job it is to coordinate the loading of the aircraft in terms of positioning cargo (which may include passengers as well) to ensure a safe and efficient weight and balance of the aircraft, while making sure that it is all secure for the flight.

When the US military employs civilian charter airlines for troop and cargo movement, the duty of Loadmaster takes on even more responsibilities. Then often known as Ground Service Coordinators, this version of Loadmaster must also manage almost all aspects of ground operations, since these airlines usually have no representatives stationed at the various military bases with which they operate around the world. These people become portable Station Managers, if you will, setting up the arrival of passengers and the fuel truck, retrieving the flight plans, supervising aircraft service of the lavatories, cabin cleaning, catering, assisting mechanics when able, and updating your control center back at your company’s headquarters how all of this is proceeding on-time to keep Uncle Sam happy (since military charter should be a cash cow). Don’t forget, this is all while planning and performing the weight and balance and making sure those actually loading the plane are doing so as instructed and safely.

So what is it like to be a loadmaster in the charter airline world? It’s insane. At least it was during the year that I did it.

At the time of being hired by one of the many charter airlines that operate for the US military in 2006, I was a gym rat weighing in at about 190 pounds with hardly any body fat at all. When I was taken off the line after being promoted to an office position a year later, I was 155 pounds (at 6 foot, 2 inches), and I would run into friends who literally assumed I was dying or had developed a severe cocaine addiction.

Much of this is because I lived on the plane, literally, for days at a time. A Loadmaster did not have crew duty limitations like a pilot or flight attendant, and actually had very little regulation or protections of any kind. So after 8 or 10 hours of flying and arriving in some other part of the world, while the crew would get off and enjoy the comforts of a hotel bed, shower, local restaurant or even a beer, I would usually stay on the aircraft to prep for its next flight. Days and days of airline food, using baby wipes and a change of clothes in the lav, and sleeping in a seat that reclines as much as your typical airline economy seat allows, may be an indication of how my bodyweight withered away.

Rest, or lack thereof, to me, was the toughest part of the job. I’ve had trips that lasted as long as 8 days with no bed while going from the US to the Middle East, returning and then repeating the process. If the passenger count allowed for the empty seats, I’d have the luxury of blocking off a row of 3 or 4 seats so that I could lay across them to sleep in-flight. If it were packed a little tighter, I’d be confined to one seat. On some completely full flights, I had was forced to sit in the cockpit jumpseat, which is pretty cool, except for when it is your only chance to sleep before working the moment you land again.

To emphasize, this meant that you could only sleep when you’re in the sky, because you’re working when you’re on the ground. Working a lot of short hop flights all day? Then your day’s sleep will consist of short naps only when that aircraft is airborne. Plane packed tight with passengers on an eastbound trans-Atlantic flight? That means you’re going to be trying to get your day’s 8 hours of sleep while strapped fully upright in a cockpit jumpseat with the sun in your face the entire time. For the most part, we would only get off the plane if we arrived at home or if the plane we were on was taking an overnight rest (or if the aircraft broke down).

And you thought regional pilots had rest issues?

I recall telling people about the job, and they would all ask what I studied in college to do such a thing. At first I thought they were being rude toward me, because the reality is that I was hired at the age of 25 with my only prior experience having been owning NYCAviation, which was only a small nerd site at the time. One day I’m a bouncer asking a friend to see if she could get me an interview at this charter airline, and weeks later I’m in the Middle East doing the payload math that will bring soldiers to and from war.

Considering the above, I think it is fair to say that aside from the duties involved, that the job of Loadmaster is a dangerous and risky one. The challenging conditions can easily create an unsafe environment, and all of my friends that I’ve shared that job with watch that awful video and can just as easily envision themselves sitting on that plane and wondering “Could that have been me?”

The job is not pretty. But you know what? I regret none of it, and I’d do it again. Regardless of how taxing it was on my body, my finances and my personal life, it was among the most amazing experiences ever. As tough as it was, I would not have gotten through it if I did not love aviation as I did and feel an immense sense of pride in helping bring our soldiers home, or to make their journey to war that much more comfortable whenever and however I could. I worked my hardest to bring our servicemen and servicewomen home safely, and as often as I didn’t leave the plane, I still did end up with opportunities to explore dozens of unique and exotic countries around the globe.

Though I was thrust quickly into that amazing and unique job, my training was thorough enough, and though I developed strong confidence, I knew the importance of my job. I knew that cutting corners or skipping steps could mean the difference between life and death. I knew the consequences of not checking cargo locks, tugging on straps ensure that they were secure, and being positive that the loaders placed the cargo as I instructed. Because once that cargo doors closed, the paperwork I hand to the Captain has my signature on it, assuring him that I did my job, and further standing behind it because I was riding the plane myself as well.

Again, I do not know the specific environment under which this late National Airlines Loadmaster worked, but even if any of the responsibility was aimed at him or her, I do hope that the common nature and stresses of the job are considered and known, and that their family is proud of the contributions that were made to keep our nation’s military machine moving.

Rest in peace, National Flight 102.

Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has a background in online advertising and airline experience as a loadmaster, operations controller and flight dispatcher. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @phildernerjr.



About the Author

Phil Derner Jr.
Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He owns and operates NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert through writing, consulting, public speaking and media appearances. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.




 
 

 

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  • CE

    Great Read. Thanks for the insight.

  • Nicholas Monteleone

    I think you raise a good point about rest issues for crewmembers. As a former military C-130 loadmaster, we had the same rest restrictions as the rest of the crew. Those rules need to cross over to our civilian counterparts as well. If this tragedy did come as a result of an overtired loadmaster, I hope it can bring about those changes.

  • I have a problem with anyone blaming the loadmaster at this point. It could have been corrosion, overloaded equipment, floors, straps, chains, etc. Heavy military trucks could have beaten up these floors. It’s just not right to start blaming a dead crewmember that isn’t here to defend himself this early into the investigation.

  • the hark

    This is something that should Never be put on a loadmaster. As Brian and Nicholas have pointed out. At this time NOBODY has the official word as to the cause of the accident, I was also a C-130 loadmaster for many years, and I have NOT flown as a civilian loadie. I have many friends who have, and they all have said that they did not get crew rest, sometimes staying on the plane for 6-8 days before they had the chance to get to a hotel for a nights rest and a shower. Maybe I am not thinking like today that the only crewmember’s

    are sitting in the front of the A/C. I just can’t for the life of me understand how a company can expect a person to live on a aircraft for days on end and still perform as a fresh crewmember. If this was a result of cargo shifting I would hope that it was NOT a loadmasters fault. But I do think the companies need to look and say that the loadmaster has the most important job on the aircraft!! Any qualified pilot can wipe eggs and bacon off his face and ask the load , WE ready to go???

  • ECO Power

    Great article, I wish the other major news outlets would pick up on this. What I can’t understand is why the FAA doesn’t make them crew members given the huge responsibility and allow them proper rest when they are carrying so many other crew members on the 747. It look like this was bound to happen, but just glad it wasn’t over a very populated area. I feel very sad for the families for what happen to this brave civilian crew and what brave work it was doing for our country and military.

  • Richard Giddens

    If you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing, you’re going to get a bunch of people killed and a 100 million dollar aircraft a smoking hole in the ground. Suits and ties for loadmasters? That’s the very first problem. They aren’t primary crew members. Are the mechanics wearing suits and ties too?

    • The shirt and tie was mostly my own choice, I must admit. We were required to have a collar shirt and khakis at least. I just found I was given more respect when instructing people how to load the plane and get other duties on the ground done when I was wearing a tie as opposed to looking like I worked at Best Buy.

    • ECO Power

      Richard, Are you a loadmaster? I don’t understand the loadmaster problem with the clothes and tie and not being a primary crew member.

  • Phil

    What does a job like this pay, if you don’t mind?

  • MV

    Very good Article Phil. As a Loadmaster for more than 10 yrs followed by eight more in ground ops management of both cargo and passenger aircraft you pretty much hit the nail on the head. It is nothing less than horrific watching that aircraft go down. The job has gone on way to long in the civilian community as being overlooked. Unfortunately not enough of that aircraft is left to test the structure to see if their was a failure on the aircraft. Many aircraft accidents as you are aware are written up as pilot error simply because no evidence was avail to make a determination…..instead of saying “We dont know what happened” its very easy to blame someone that is no longer around. The loadmaster job is brutal on the body, mind, family and devestating on any thought of a relationship….But I would not trade my experience for anything.
    Regrds

  • ARSLAN ASGHAR

    hi
    its better if they used airbus 330-242 freighter new aircraft because in this aircraft the payload will be increased relative with fuel capacity.
    regards
    ARSLAN ASGHAR
    Multi-fleet Loadmaster

    • This doesn’t make a lot of sense and isn’t relevant to any of the discussion. If comparing to the 747, the A330 does NOT have anywhere CLOSE to the payload or fuel capacity.

      • ARSLAN ASGHAR

        right
        well if you comparing the payload then i would suggest antonov-225 aircraft which have almost 250-ton payload
        and if you are talking about the long range then 777 is a good option of 102-ton payload with long range.