RNZAF exercise flight real lift
The Royal New Zealand Air Force, with support from the army, has booked out the Alexandra airfield for a month for two training exercises before some of the personnel head off to Afghanistan. Yesterday, during Exercise Skytrain, a tactical low-level flying exercise, they invited media to their camp and Otago Daily Times reporter Sarah Marquet went up to see what it was all about.
The flight captain had an "L" on his left hand and an "R" on his right, the crew all had a stash of air-sickness bags in their pockets and we were told to stash away all our "loose items" or they would be sucked out the back of the C-130 Hercules.
It was not exactly confidence inspiring but, as the Royal New Zealand Air Force crew members from 40 Squadron began their pre-flight briefing and talked of things too technical for this reporter to follow, I realised I was placing my life in well-practised hands.
Detachment commander, Squadron Leader Andy Scott told us they would be doing an aggressive tactical takeoff, as if they were in a war situation, and we could expect to experience forces greater and lesser than gravity.
However, that quickly left my mind as load master Sergeant Rodrigo Arriagada helped me into a harness and attached me to the wall of the plane.
Through my earplugs I vaguely heard him say it was so I could stand at the window and look out during take-off.
As we took off, much faster than the commercial flights I was used to, I was thrown sideways but, thankful for my harness, I managed to right myself as the extra gravity began to kick in.
It felt as though something was trying to squash me into the floor of the plane, my knees bent involuntarily and I was unable to straighten them.
Then, all of a sudden, the total opposite happened.
I was involuntarily on the very tips of my toes and felt as light as air. I wondered, if I jumped, would I float like the astronauts do in movies?
Unfortunately, it was all over just as suddenly and I had to return to my seat so the load masters - Flight Sergeants John Berre and Sean Smith and Sgt Arriagada - could prepare the load for drop-off.
For these training exercises the loads, attached to parachutes, were drums filled with water or sand and weighed anywhere from 300kg to 2 tonnes, but in a real war they would be any kind of equipment from vehicles to medical supplies.
I sat on the red canvas seat and watched the load masters do their safety checks by torchlight as we flew through the Ida Valley about 250 feet off the ground.
Then, the door was opened, the load was sucked out, parachutes first, and floated gracefully towards a paddock with a bright orange A.
They left the door down and Sgt Arriagada beckoned me towards the gaping opening.
We sat with our feet only centimetres from the edge, as the icy wind tugged at my shoelaces and earrings.
We flew so close to the ground I could almost see the eyes of the sheep, deer and cattle as they ran for safety and of the children at Poolburn School, as they raced outside to catch a glimpse of the plane.
Up on the flight deck, Sqn Ldr Scott and co-pilot Flight Lieutenant Pete Barron, flight engineer Sergeant David Bennett and navigator Flt Lt Mel Axelrad turned the plane around and headed back to the airstrip.
Fl Lt Axelrad warned me to hold on and brace myself for the abrupt landing, as the plane seemingly fell from the sky.
Back on the ground Sqn Ldr Scott, a veteran of "lots" of trips to Afghanistan, said the Central Otago terrain was an "awesome" place to train as it "bears an incredible resemblance to Afghanistan" in the summer and the Southern Alps were just like the mountains around Bamiyan, only smaller.
That is not why the air force chose to train here, though.
He said they liked to "spread the costs around" by training in different places which also meant pilots were not overly familiar with the terrain.
The last time they did a training camp like this was in 2007, at Timaru.
Everything for the camp has been shipped in - all the tents, full kitchen facilities, bathroom and laundry facilities, including a bath, water, water treatment systems, fuel and even a bar.
The idea was to "test the deployability" of the squadron, Sqn Ldr Scott said.
They will be at the camp until March 9, at which time a pilot-training squadron will take over, with eight bright yellow CT-4E Airtrainers, for Exercise Wiseowl.
They will be in the camp for the following two weeks practising formation flying.
The camp will be open to the public today from noon to 3.30pm. Members of the public will be able to walk through the planes and chat to personnel.
There will be another open day on Saturday March 17, and a chance to inspect the Airtrainers.
- The numbers on 40 Squadron's Exercise Skytrain:180 people - 50 aircrew with 130 support personnel from the air force and the army.
- 6 crew fly the plane - 2 pilots, 1 navigator, 1 flight engineer, 2 load masters.
- 3 C-130 Hercules planes.
- 2 B200 Kingair planes.
- 60 flights over 10 days.
- 150,000kg of aviation fuel.
- 100+ tents.