Reserve aircrew gets prime time with the big time

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Andria J. Allmond
  • 512th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
June 29 turned out to be like Christmas morning for Tech. Sgt. Harry Pollock, a 326th Airlift Squadron loadmaster who was part of the crew slated to provide airlift for a very anonymous mission.

Sergeant Pollock and the rest of his C-17 Globemaster III comrades awoke the morning of June 28 prepared for a four-day mission to support the USO in their objective of providing morale, welfare and recreation-type services to uniformed military personnel. The Reserve crew knew they were transporting one or more passengers for the USO, but had no further details on who it could be.

"We'd been asking for quite a while about who our special passengers were, but to no avail," said Lt. Col. Michael Miller, 326th AS pilot and aircraft commander for this mission. "We'd heard rumors of the possibility they were (National Football League) coaches -- but nothing substantiated that claim."

While details on the featured guests were sketchy, the initial itinerary called for stops at Ramstein and Spangdahlem Air Bases, Germany, and Bagram Air Base and Kabul International Airport in Afghanistan, before returning home to Dover Air Force Base.

A day after reaching their initial stop in Germany, the crew prepared to "load" the previously undetermined passengers.

With a corona of the sunlight beaming around them, four NFL head coaches climbed up the clattering stairs leading into the dim cargo area of the plane -- Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles, Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals, Brad Childress of the Minnesota Vikings and John Fox of the Carolina Panthers.

"When I saw them, I was so excited -- like a little kid waking up on Christmas morning," said Sergeant Pollock.

The crew's mission was to take to coaches to visit troops in Afghanistan as part of the NFL-USO Coaches tour. Last year, five other coaches visited troops in Iraq. This year's tour kicked off in Ramstein, Germany, where the 326th AS crew picked up the coaches.

"For me, being a big sports fan, it was a dream come true," said Sergeant Pollock. "You don't get the opportunity to do stuff like this very often."

Amidst the enthusiasm brought on-board by the prominent passengers, the flyers did what any experienced aircrew would do -- they wasted no time getting pictures and autographs. The coaches were more than happy to supply the squad with the desired signatures and snap shots.

"We really appreciate what people like these guys do," said Coach Andy Reid. "The least we can do is come out and spend a little time with the troops."

After the fanfare subsided and it was time to fly, the crew and passengers took their positions, secured their belongings and clicked their safety belts around them. The bellow of the aircraft's four engines filled the cargo area with a constant, roaring hum as the jet prepared to elevate.

Suddenly, the noise in the cargo bay changed. The droning hum gave way to a loud bang.

The sound was brought on by a bird strike occurring immediately after takeoff.

The aircraft was maneuvered back to Ramstein AB to assess the damage.

"We took a couple birds in our number three engine at lift off, which is the most critical time," said Colonel Miller. "We were at max-gross weight and it was a hot day--a recipe for disaster. But this is a wonderful, very capable aircraft. The engine coughed a few times, but kept on running. We declared an emergency, ran checklists and brought the aircraft back for an uneventful landing. We practice this scenario in the simulator all the time, so the real thing was no different."

And although no substantial damage was done, the grounded airplane was now a day behind schedule.

"We knew that it was imperative we got (the coaches) where they needed to be as soon as possible," said Master Sgt. Marti Stansbury, 326th AS loadmaster. "The coaches were on a very tight schedule for this USO tour."

As part of the tour, the Army had arranged helicopters to take the coaches out to some remote locations in Afghanistan to meet with soldiers.

"We knew if we couldn't get them there in time, some other crew would," said Sergeant Stansbury.

But, while great personalities and a positive posture may not be able to buy back time in the sky, it apparently does buy time with NFL head coaches--at least for one bunch of reservists.

The coaches said they enjoyed being around the aircrew so much they wanted to take the opportunity presented by mid-day misadventure to spend time with the Dover flyers. The crew complied with their famous commuters' request. Later that evening, dinner was spent swapping stories and laughing with recently acquired comrades that intermingled like life-long friends.

"(The 326th AS aircrew) is just an awesome group of people," said Coach Brad Childress. "Sometimes the least orchestrated things are the best events -- the extemporaneous ones. We really enjoyed our evening (with the crew) in Germany."

Although both aircrew and coaches were ready to fly the next day, all flights going to Southwest Asia were held back due to an airspace closure. The Reserve crew was now two days behind schedule due to uncontrollable factors.

As the unanticipated incidences piled up against the crew, they expressed concern about losing fly time with their new associates.

"We had really bonded with those guys and were fiercely protecting the chance to be the ones to fly them downrange," said Sergeant Stansbury. "When we told them that there was a chance another crew was going to fly them, they specifically said that they hoped they could stick with us."

As time slipped by, so did the opportunity.

The coaches broke the news to their doting crew that they had indeed been manifested on a flight with a different aircrew.

"I would've liked to have taken them all the way to Afghanistan, but I'm excited that we even had the opportunity to meet them at all," said Staff Sgt. Pat Burk, 326th AS loadmaster. "The fact that they took time out of their day to spend with our crew was awesome. It wasn't just that they signed footballs for us, but they also spent a lot of time getting to know us. They were some of the nicest people I've met."

While presenting their final good-byes, the footballers arranged for a unique final meeting with the crew --providing them with gifts like signed footballs, sports attire, pins and stickers.

As for Sergeant Pollock, he got his Christmas present in June.