Standing on solid ground and watching a C-130 aircraft fly overhead, those big planes look downright docile. Gliding between the clouds, they buzz along like great majestic birds gently cruising the skies. About the only thing that suggest otherwise is the racket it makes. Ah, you’re reminded, but that’s the sound of freedom!
And then you fly on one, and you realize how loud those chimes of freedom can be.
Earlier this month, my editor Jon Gillooly and I were invited to Dobbins Air Reserve Base to learn about the 94th Airlift Wing’s efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. To sweeten the deal, the airmen offered to take us up for a training exercise and go for a spin in Marietta’s signature aircraft.
So at 1 p.m. that day, we stood on the tarmac waiting to be let on board the plane. It was a balmy 38 degrees, overcast, with a mean wind nipping at us. Every few minutes, an F-22 Raptor would fly by, its jet engines putting a shake and a shiver in my bones.
Minutes later we were in the belly of the beast. The C-130 is, in fact, not a big plane. Nose to tail, it measures just 132 feet long (a 747 airliner is 231 feet by comparison). As one of our guides would later inform us, this allows the aircraft to land in remote locales and combat zones without the luxury of a mile-long runway.
Over and over, they warn you before getting on one of these planes to expect discomfort. The inside is unfinished and uninsulated, with only a few big sheets of plastic between you and the cold steel of the hull. The floor is covered in rails, the seats are canvas stretched across metal poles, and inside, it’s either a furnace or a freezer.
But if the men and women in uniform could grin and bear it, so could a few lowly newspaper men. We sat in on a team huddle led by our pilot, Capt. Michael Edwards, after which the crew took their positions. Four were in the cockpit, along with Gillooly: navigator, engineer, co-pilot and pilot. Joining in steerage was the load team, tasked with the airdrop to be conducted later in the flight. As we settled in, I looked around in vain for a stewardess, wondering when the drink cart might come out.
Then we were moving, taxiing straight to the runway (it’s a beautiful thing not to sit in line for takeoff). It couldn’t have been more than a minute or two. Then we were picking up speed, hurtling ahead, and lifting off above Marietta.
Many readers will be familiar with the experience of seeing Atlanta from the lofty heights of a commercial flight. It’s another thing entirely to be just a few thousand feet above the city streets, close enough to tell the makes and models of the cars zipping along, the wind whipping around you and the plane banking with all the subtlety of a Six Flags coaster.
So when the big bay door in back of the C-130 opened up, naturally I was grinning like a fool. This, I thought, is the part of the movie where a grizzled officer yells in my ear, “Air superiority, son!” Gillooly was a kid in a candy store, clambering over the cargo to snap photos of the city below us. Unfortunately, a reporter from another outlet was not having such a ball. She was curled up the corner, head between with knees and holding her lunch in a diplomatically named “motion sickness bag.”
After cruising over the city and by Stone Mountain, it was time to get down to business. The plane passed over Lake Lanier as we headed for Dobbins, the Blue Ridge Mountains rising in the distance. The load team sprung into action. We took our seats as they readied a huge crate for the airdrop.
I’d been advised to look out for a little light by the rear door to turn green. “When that thing goes, it goes,” the airman had said. We came in over the base. The loud master put up a finger and shouted, “One minute!” I readied my camera.
Then, green light, woosh, and the cargo was gone in a flash. The next thing I saw was the crate floating to the ground. Though this is unconfirmed, I can only assume that the load team hit their mark and passed with flying colors.
Following two more “sandbag” drops it was time to head back to base. Sitting in the cockpit as we made our descent, Gillooly muttered that the jostling was beginning to disagree with his stomach. Thankfully, he kept it together, and we landed back on the tarmac without incident. We disembarked into what had become a beautiful winter afternoon.
I owe a special thanks to Capt. Edwards and our entire crew for their courtesy and professionalism throughout the flight (and for keeping me from tumbling out of the plane). Their work makes the folks of Cobb and Marietta proud every single day.
Hopefully, I’ll see them again some day. As we clambered back onto the bus that would take us back to our cars, I leaned over to the public affairs official who had accompanied us on the flight. “Next time,” I told him, “Let’s go up in the Raptor.”