TOP STORY >>'Triple 7' missions save lives
By HEATHER HARTSELL
Leader staff writer
The 463rd Airlift Group at Little Rock Air Force Base celebrated when it reached the 5,000 mark last month for the number of convoy vehicles taken off the roads in Iraq thanks to C-130 airlift missions. Reducing the number of road convoys reduced injuries and deaths from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that blow up on Iraq’s war-riddled highways.
Airmen from the 463rd AG carry a large part of the deployment load because of the busy C-130 mission of its deployed squadron, the 777th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron at Balad Air Base, Iraq.
The “Triple 7” flies about 25 to 30 sorties (flights) a day, carrying everything from passengers to supplies, to food and medical evacuations. The squadron, along with other elements of the 463rd, have been on a standing deployment for the past six years.
Their mission while deployed is three-fold: convoy mitigation – keep the convoys off the road with C-130 missions; communications support missions – flying overhead if convoys on the ground need support; and joint precision airdrop (JPAD) capabilities – the ability to drop cargo from higher altitudes with better accuracy.
Lieutenant Col. Mark Czelusta knows this mission well. Not only did he command the 777th from June to October 2006, he was a key player in establishing it.
“It was a total team effort, it was not anything any one person could do,” Czelusta said Friday concerning his command of the Air Force’s only hub and spoke airlift squadron in Iraq, for which he received a Bronze Star.
The hub and spoke works in the same fashion as any large commercial airport.
The larger planes bring the cargo (passengers) in and the smaller planes leave to carry the passengers or cargo to further, smaller airports.
Czelusta, the commander of the 463rd Operations Support Squadron at LRAFB, said the hub and spoke came about when trying to answer the question of how, by placing a small attachment of C-130s up and into Iraq, would the squadron’s cargo velocity increase.
“We set that up as a test, and it proved to be so successful that we worked to establish the first squadron,” Czelusta said.
“Triple Seven was not my brainchild, it was something the team came up with and something made real by the total team.
The total team wasn’t confined to the airlift group, it was confined to the whole prospect of LRAFB because you start flying C-130s at Little Rock,” Czelusta said.
“The skills ingrained from day one at the school house are refined and encouraged by squadrons; the operation arm is just one part of the whole puzzle,” he added.
The system works because Balad is large enough to handle the heavy C-17 and C-5 cargo airplanes and because the C-130s and their crews are capable of operating in austere locations.
“The C-130s have short landing capabilities, the crews are trained – starting here at Little Rock – to operate in austere environments,” Czelusta said. “From day one the crews are trained in that direction, the airplane is built to operate in an austere environment, it’s sturdy, can operate on rougher runways, and can operate on shorter, smaller runways,” he said.
And because smaller units at smaller outposts do not always need a C-17 load of cargo but only a C-130 load, the squadron fit the bill.
“The C-130 is so well suited to that. The crews are trained to be efficient on the ground, to get in and get out, to not get in the way of what is going on, but to still keep the troops supplied,” Czelusta said, adding, “the unique capacity of our fleet to operate with shorter legs and quick turns and time velocity is what really makes the 777th a unique squadron.
“I know that every time one of our airplanes pulled up, there were big happy, smiling faces on our Army troops,” he added.
The C-130 crews are trained to operate in hostile airspace, and the C-130s have the equipment on board to operate in it as well.
“Whether it’s the 1960s era C-130, the 1990s C-130H3, to now the J model, they’ve all got the equipment to be effective and survivable in that kind of hostile airspace,” the 18-year commissioned officer said.
The 777th also performed convoy communications support missions.
A command and control module was placed in the back of the airplane during flights to assist ground convoys with communications, whether it was calling in fire support, a medical evacuation, relaying messages, or a status check; the module also kept track of the convoys’ location.
“Sometimes the waves of communications are not good enough,” Czelusta said, “the vast majority of convoy status checks was ‘we’re a o.k. - good to go.’”
Czelusta said crews flew communication missions sometimes for more than 10 hours in the air for communications support, but the crews were also still flying the same number of cargo transport missions.
“The 777th in Balad is still doing that today,” he said.
About 15 months ago, Air Mobility Command began developing the joint precision airdrop and Czelusta said the 463rd AG jumped at the chance to be the lead unit.
“We are the only ones with unit level capability to put multiple airplanes in the air at the same time with JPAD capabilities; there are some with individual capability, but the 463rd’s 777th in Balad is the only one with unit level,” he said. The first time JPAD was used in combat was in Afghanistan in July and it was successful, bringing initial capability for JPAD to the theater three months before the Army’s goal.
Czelusta will leave LRAFB this summer for Senior Developmental Education, the air-war college equivalent, stationed in the Bavarian Alps of Germany focusing on European security.