MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan — Twenty-four inches.
A C-130 is more than 1,150 inches long and capable of toting a 45,000 pound payload.
But the 45,000 pounds can’t just be thrown into the aircraft like loading up the car for a summer road trip.
The center of balance must fall within a 24-inch margin or the pilots will not be able to take off.
That 45,000 pounds of cargo doesn’t just load and deliver itself to the doorsteps of those who need it.
Sometimes a Marine or two might have to get involved.
As part of Operation Tomodachi, Marines with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152 shuttled approximately 30,000 pounds of water, clothing, food and other miscellaneous relief supplies from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni to Sendai, Japan, March 25.
With support from the station, VMGR-152 has been transporting cargo and personnel to assist those affected by the natural disasters in northern Japan since March 12, and for every KC-130 sortie, there is a loadmaster.
Often remanded to the bowels of the aircraft during flight, the loadmasters do much of the aircraft prep work and are responsible for ensuring the aircraft is balanced, and thus capable of takeoff.
If the weight distribution falls outside that center of balance, the plane cannot get off the ground said Lance Cpl. Charles Hennessey, a VMGR-152 loadmaster.
Putting all the cargo toward the front or back of the aircraft is like outstretching an arm and attaching weight to the hand; the weight feels greater and has a more significant effect because of the extended arm.
As expected, balancing the aircraft requires some mathematical prowess, which loadmasters attain at school.
The first four to five weeks of the school is math, said Lance Cpl. Eric M. Wanczak, a VMGR-152 loadmaster.
The course, as expected, proceeds to practical application loading cargo, passengers, vehicles and combinations of all three. As a final demonstration of skill, the loadmasters perform several air drops.
While the idea might sound simple, different loads require different size parachutes and, of greater concern, if the drop does not properly extract, the parachute can bring down the aircraft, said Lance Cpl. Eric M. Wanczak, a VMGR-152 loadmaster.
With the flexibility of the C-130s, the loadmasters need to be just as flexible.
“You don’t ever know exactly what you’re taking,” Wanczak said it is the most challenging aspect.
Sticking true to its roots, Marine Corps loadmasters must be ready to take on combinations of passengers, cargo, vehicles – pretty much anything a C-130 can haul.
“We do everything with our aircraft,” said Wanczak. “You never know what you actually have until you get there.”
Generally, a loadmaster will begin by prepping emergency systems and checking locking mechanisms in the aircraft.
The prep work done is critical in case of emergencies and also expedites cargo loading once the time comes.
Once loadmasters complete their prep work, it can be a waiting game until the cargo arrives.
Getting the cargo composition and weight information with little time is standard. So every loadmaster must be prepared to work quickly to complete the necessary calculations.
True to their namesake, the loadmasters do in fact load the cargo once they determine how to distribute the weight.
Via a series of hand-and-arm signals that appear just as confusing as the signals base coaches use, loadmasters will guide forklifts, vehicles and, if necessary, passengers into the dim, hulking underbelly of the C-130.
From there, the show gets turned over to the rest of the air crew, and the loadmaster rides it out in the dim underbelly, mentally preparing to quickly unload and possibly reload quickly at the crew’s destination.
On the next C-130 hop, thank the loadmaster for the aircraft getting off the ground.