Getting paid to go spotting!! (or, my life as a loadmaster...)
Well hello all;
My first blog post finds me writing about my trip yesterday into the cauldron that is today's Afghanistan. But before I do that, maybe I should tell you a little about myself.
Clive, British, 47, fat. That's all you probably wish to know! I fell into this job via the classic route of not what you know but who you know, you know. I had worked all but a few years of my working life behind one wheel or another driving all over Europe, becoming more and more stressed as the years rolled by. Maybe my good friend was taking pity on me when he suggested working as a loadmaster or maybe he had been a passenger one too many times up and down the wonderful roads of the UK seeing me slowly losing my cool (more often, not slow enough...). So, here I am, currently working out of the middle east, 28 days on duty and 10 days off, return tickets back home courtesy of my employer. This surely is the closest I will ever come to getting paid to pursue my hobby!! Enough about me
Working as a loadmaster, a dying breed in this day and age it seems, allows me the dubious pleasure of visiting Afghanistan. It has to be said I do have reservations about these flights to Iraq and Afghanistan and as long as we carry only general freight for the US bases then I suppose I cannot refuse because as the sign in the shop states "a refusal often offends", in this case it would most likely mean looking for a new vocation. One of the most irritating things about these flights are the constant changes in the run up to the scheduled departure times, or sometimes even cancellations when crew have already been positioned along the route.
So yesterdays routing was Abu Dhabi-Sharjah-Kuwait-Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan-Muscat-Abu Dhabi. On paper this was, for me, supposed to be a 17-18 hour duty from leaving to returning to my apartment here in Abu. It must be said at this juncture that being a mere loadmaster does not entitle me to the same duty restrictions as the flight crew i.e. captain and first oficer unfortunately and I am expected to work very long hours. This particular routing used two flight crews but only one loadie!! Anyway, it turned out to be 26.5 hours in length.....it does beat a 9 to 5 job though!! and my ofice window can be quite spectacular...
So as befitting my job title of loadmaster, my job entails receiving the "pallet weight statement" or PWS from the customer and transferring the weights and dimensions of each pallet onto our loadplanning sheets in order to ensure that the aircraft is loaded in such a way as to maintain an ideal balance of the aircraft's centre of gravity and that the load is secure and any dangerous goods are clearly marked and visible should the need arise to access them for any reason. Once I have determied everything fits then I transfer the information onto a loadsheet which determines the zero fuel weight and take-off weight %MAC (mean aerodynamic chord). This then determines the takeoff trim settings for the flight crew and if I have got my calculations correct, it means we actually become airborne!!
The aircraft's cargo deck, both the main deck and the forward and aft cargo bellies on a dedicated freighter are fitted with numerous locking devices that accept all standard pallets used throughout the world except, that is, for the blinkin pallets that the United States Air Force choose to utilise, why do they have to be different?? So on our Airbus A300-600 freighters, as these particular pallets only fit into the locks on three sides, I have to strap each one of them in order to prevent them from moving laterally. Another one of the reasons these particular flights are not my favourite, I have to endure a little physical work!!
So, back to the flight in hand. We left Abu Dhabi for Sharjah empty but with as much fuel stuffed into the tanks as possible, including the trim tank in the tail. This tank can hold as much as four tonnes of fuel and helps greatly with the trim espcially if you have the aircraft loaded in such a way that the C of G is biased towards the nose. Sharjah airport was, as usual, filled with plenty of Ilyushin IL-76's and Antonov AN-12's & AN-26's though not as many as used to be seen here a few years ago. This airport has transformed itself from a sleepy backwater that was mainly used to service the ageing russian behemoths to a fully fledged International airport mainly served by Air Arabia but also by other low cost airlines such as Jet Airways, Air Blue and even Air India amongst others.Six pallets were loaded in Sharjah, on this particular flight we were going to have 15 pallets in a single row down the entire length of the main deck and 4 pallets in the forward belly with nothing in the rear belly. So three pallets rearmost and three near the front for the short flight to Kuwait then the aircraft was fully loaded with general freight including tyres and truck axles etc and then it was off on the four hour six minute flight to Bagram Air Base near Kabul in Afghanistan.
As this was going to be my first visit to Bagram, I was quite looking forward to the expectation of the aircraft I was to see but not so to the approach pattern we have to fly into these bases and airports in these two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. No 12 mile finals here oh no. Lots of bobbing and weaving about, it does make one distictly nervous I always have in mind the DHL A300 with the rather large hole in it's wing.....
Bagram is a large base, a mini town in it's own right. It made me wonder about the amount of money the US is spending here and the utter futility of it...oops a little political there. I have never seen so many Hercules aircraft in one place, unfortunately most of them went unread along with all the fighters and helicopters, lots of them. On the ramp that we parked on I was surrounded by Hercules, C-17's and numerous civilian registered but quasi military Beeches, Casas, Metroliners etc and it was a very busy base indeed. My first impression, stood there on the ramp was of the beauty of the surrounding landscape. On three sides the base is surrounded by mountainous terrain. The base itself is 5000 feet AMSL (above mean sea level) and the mountains rise to 20000 feet in places.
Well, the unloading here was quite straightforward, undertaken by a civilian company rather than the military and after refuelling we were on our way once more. The departure was also rather interesting, I think we set a climb to height record for the Airbus with an all lights out departure including nav lights until 15000 feet....onwards to Muscat. This is a silly diversion because although we are operating for an Emirati company, they do not allow any direct flights from Afghanistan to the Emirates so we have to land in Muscat before continuing back to Abu Dhabi. It was only upon landing in Muscat that we were informed that we would not be returning to Abu Dhabi but instead they would like us to go back to Sharjah, turns out that they had another flight returning to Bagram the next day with the freight out of Sharjah snd the company were quite happy sticking us in a taxi for the 2 hour drive back to Abu, not so the crew!!
So here I am back in my apartment in downtown Abu Dhabi, waiting for the next flight. Coming up on Sunday is Abu Dhabi-Tripoli-Milan Malpensa-Abu Dhabi so hopefully I can let you know how it goes!
You can view many more of my pictures at http://superspottersgallery.fotopic.net or www.flickr.com/photos/superspotter the first link is more up to date.