Mobility Life: Through the eyes of a C-130 NAV
The crew has been on the road for weeks now. In and out of rural airports, big military bases, FOBs (Forward Operating Bases). Today’s mission has been planned as rigorously as the rest, the details of every turnpoint studied and rehearsed. The charts have been prepared and are referenced as the NAV calculates wind drift corrections, and checks the timing once again. Low through the canyons, the thrumming Hercules banks around a rocky bend and dips closer to the waddi. The canyon is wide here. The pilot nudges the aircraft lower and signals for the aft cargo door to be opened. The loadmaster has prepared the cargo. On command from the NAV, the pallets are disgorged from the back, slowly at first as they build momentum and break free from their stasis, then are ripped into the airstream by a billowing parachute. A cloud of dust encases the box as it slides along the waddi floor. The aircraft banks up and out of the canyon, jinking in random patterns to make a hard target for any would-be anti-aircraft gunners’ sights.
Dust covered warriors scramble out from their hiding positions and reach the pallet, weapons pointed defensively towards the canyon walls. Hurriedly, they gather the cases of rations, ammunition, and communications gear before slipping silently along a tributary and back to their staging area. The Afghan soldiers, advised and trained by the American ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha – a team of Green Berets. See: https://special-ops.org/special-forces-operational-detachment-alpha/ ) team living among them, have been suffering from dwindling supplies after weeks of skirmishes with the Taliban. Tonight however,their bodies will be nourished, their rifle magazines filled.
The C-130 Hercules has, for decades, been perhaps the most trusted, most versatile workhorse of military (and some civilian) aviation. This rugged, iconic tool of mobility has seen just about every corner of the globe, and more than a few design changes, upgrades, and overhauls. As a testament to its utility, it is the only fixed wing aircraft employed by all branches of the US MIlitary, and several small foreign nations maintain an air force equipped exclusively with a single C-130. While many C-130 units are transitioning to more modernized versions which have largely negated the need of a traditional Navigator, several Air National Guard units still retain their Nav equipped Herks.
While C-130s have been used for everything from search and rescue, disaster response, and simply moving people and things all around the world, some have converted to more unique roles. The AC-130 gunship is a Herk with bunch of artillery pieces stuck out the side to rain hate on bad guys, while the HC-130 is equipped with sophisticated weather radar and sensor equipment…to be used while flying INTO HURRICANES. Some have skis, some get fitted with pressurized tanks of fire retardant to slow the spread of wildfires. Some have radar sensing and jamming equipment, while still others are set up to re-fuel SoF helicopters in harsh weather and at night.
Little Rock, Arkansas may not be the first place people think of when discussing metropolitan American cities, but for decades it has been the mecca of C-130 training for the US Military. Here, pilots, crew chiefs, navigators, and flight engineers get their first taste of the marvelous airplane.
Beginning like most military courses with an academics phase, NAVs will learn systems, EPs, and will receive top-off training for navigation skills and techniques. After about a month of this, training will progress to a 2 month air-land phase where NAVS will learn advanced navigation including cross-oceanic flying, how to integrate with the maintenance procedures, and will get lots of practice with the basics of navigation. They will practice with the trusty “whiz-wheel” – basically an advanced slide rule used for crunching the numbers for wind drift calculations, fuel management, and a host of other imperative flying calculations. They will study oceanic reporting, dead reckoning, and will train on the basic functions of being C-130 crewmember like securing the aircraft after a flight.
The remaining 5 months of the training pipeline transitions to tactical airlift, beginning again with an academics phase and transitioning to sims and flights. The first portion of this phase consists of Air-Land – basically flying domestically from base to base, hauling whatever needs to be hauled. With those basics covered, students will train for Airdrop, beginning with understanding loadmaster coordination including the loading of pallets, developing timelines, and how the loadmaster calculates weight considerations and what needs to be done in order to send things out of the aircraft. NAV students will ultimately train to drop standardized items like sandbags, pallets, and parachute-equipped wooden boxes while conducting low altitude flights. The goal is to get proficient at all the skills required to send an object hurtling out the ass end of a careening aircraft, in precisely the right place, at the right time.
With the proficiency gained from Little Rock, NAVs will filter out to their respective squadrons, where they will continue to build proficiency and work towards more upgrades. Having learned to drop stuff out of the airplane, they will learn to drop people. Don’t worry, these people have parachutes and are usually gung-ho Army dudes who like that kind of thing. Lumbering with gear and chute rigs, they hurl their bodies off the ramp and into the sky, placing their lives and trust into the hands of the aircrew to have the airplane in the right place, at the right time, going the right direction, and at the right altitude. Once the standard personnel drops are mastered, NAVs can pursue upgrades to make this insane process of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane just a little more crazy. HALO (High Altitude Low Open) and HAHO (High Altitude High Open) as well as over-water upgrades up the ante for aircrew and the brave souls diving out into the abyss.
And if doing all of this in one airplane isn’t enough, further upgrades to become the flight lead for multiple aircraft – up to four flights of four ships, and then multi-ship in limited visibility conditions – will keep NAVs plenty busy learning new skills and advancing for at least the first 12-18 months of their Herk career. With upgrades under their belt and plenty of hours accumulated, NAVs can pursue an instructor upgrade, which often involves heading back to Little Rock for a bit more schoolhouse time. This typically occurs around two and a half to three years after their first round of Arkansas training, with Evaluator upgrades generally available about a year later, followed by the potential to seek a WIC slot, should one want to develop the latest in advanced tactics.
Squadrons flying “slick” C-130s will be a part of AMC (Air Mobility Command). Slicks are the basic airplanes, with none of the wild, deadly, and high-tech attachments and modifications that you might find in an AFSOC AC-130 gunship, or the HC-130 Hurricane Hunter. Absent these impressive, if often ungainly, modifications, these Herks are used to move people and stuff wherever needed. Often referred to as “trash hauling,” this is an extremely vital function to the military operations, without which the front line warriors could never do what they need to do. Still, it should come as no surprise that the squadron culture is less intense, less rowdy, less aggressive than their point-end-of-the-spear counterparts. Heritage events and raucous nights can still be counted on, but with a flavor less steeped in traditions hearkening of dealing death from above.
Camaraderie is largely built on shared adventures, with frequent TDYs, off-station flights, and deployments to all sorts of unusual corners of the globe. Being flexible and able to pick up a the the drop of a hat to grab such-and-such pallet and take it to such-and-such airbase means aircrew are primed and ready to get the mission done. Crews may be on the road, flying missions all over the place, for weeks or months at a time. Sometimes, that can include being put up in nice hotels, and maybe even getting a few days to hang out poolside waiting on a part to fix a broken aircraft. Or it could mean choking down street meat and shacking up in a spare tent the Marines left for you. Being adaptable, rolling with the punches, and getting the mission done is what keeps the logistics chain flowing, and the war machine turning.
Many people question the utility of Navigators in the age of GPS. They’re not entirely wrong to do so either, as many aircraft have transitioned to be exclusively pilot flown, including several variants of the C-130. Because many of the NAV equipped airframes are legacy aircraft, they are increasingly being shuffled off to ANG and Reserve units. A NAV therefore looses a certain degree of job security. However, with a nation-wide aviator shortage, many are able to transition to other roles and other airframes. This can be an exciting and lucrative opportunity to make a transition to a new airframe, job, or even the front seat.
Given that if you are a NAV, there is a good chance that you are in the Guard, your career comes with many of the advantages of that lifestyle. While you can expect approximately two years away from your civilian career to get spun up, trained, and upgraded, you will also maintain considerably more control over your life going forward. Deployments and TDYs will be available, but less frequent and tasking than the more heavily tasked specialty units.
In terms of leadership and command progression, NAVs, like the rest of the rated officer corps, tend to hold command positions roughly in proportion to the community population ratio of pilots to CSO or ABMs. In other words, there are more pilots than NAVs in a C-130 wing because there are two pilots and only one NAV on any aircraft. Because there are twice as many pilots in the wing, there are usually twice as many pilots holding command positions as NAVs. If a command position is what you seek with your career, this path is therefore every bit as available to you as it is to the pilots.
Within the umbrella of the military, C-130s are used for just about everything, so the familiarity and proficiency gained can open all kinds of doors, from SAR (Search and Rescue) to SoF. Furthermore, navigators have an intimate proficiency with a core skill of aviation. In an era where GPS denial becomes a real concern, NAVs who keep that skill alive may very well find themselves an indispensable asset. Being able to guide an airplane through the mountains at night, completely absent the crutch of a mil-spec Siri could mean the difference between getting the mission done, and being unable to fathom even taking off.
With the C-130’s incredible versatility also comes a degree of ubiquitousness. With so many in service throughout the world, somebody familiar with the platform may have a valuable edge. This workhorse is in service even with private companies, such as Coulson Aviation, who operates wildland fire tankers and International Air Response who lease their C-130 to be used for everything from NASA research missions to Hollywood movie stunts. Having the backbone knowledge and familiarity with systems and checklists will go a long way.
With the tendency for mobility units to travel a great deal, both within our own borders and abroad, crew-members often experience and visit unique lands and cultures. Having to handle foreign procedures and remain flexible throughout extensive travel is a skill unto itself. Simply acquiring this broadened, global perspective will benefit you as you find new roles in different organizations and/or locations. This component becomes worth emphasizing in jobs which require a great deal of travel and/or interactions with foreign individuals.
As a NAV, as with other rated positions, the skills you leverage may be those outside simply running checklists and radios. The planning skills alone that a NAV must master in order to be successful should be seen as incredibly valuable in just about any extra-military pursuit. Combined with all the organizational, leadership, and communication skills developed through a career in the military, NAVs are regularly able to build lucrative careers throughout the private sector, governmental agencies, and government contractor fields. Whether using your planning skills to coordinate Red Flag exercises as a government contractor, or opening a local, veteran-owned coffee shop steeped in the styles and traditions you picked up in your travels, Navigators, and for that matter any C-130 folks, are as versatile and useful as the venerable Hercules.