Sitting in the back of a C-130 for the first time is an eye-opening experience. The first thing you notice is how spartan the interior of the aircraft is. Webbed seats run down each side of the fuselage in addition to a row running down the middle. Hydraulic and electrical lines run the length of the fuselage and there are small, round porthole windows, which are situated too high to see out of when strapped in and seated. It’s disorienting at first because of the loud noise and the lack of visual reference to tell you where you are. You only realize you’ve gone from taxiing to takeoff when you’re suddenly pulled towards the rear of the aircraft as the nose points up and the turboprops start screaming. Once airborne you have to yell to be heard—and there is no in-flight beverage service.
I had expected the landing at drop zone Sicily—a dirt strip—to be bumpy but it was surprisingly smooth. We deplaned through the back of the aircraft into swirling clouds of red dust whipped up by the still turning props. We were met by a line of paratroopers, each holding a placard with members of our delegation’s name printed on them. I found my guy, “Brian”, (my "airborne buddy" for the remainder of the evening), a 22-year-old paratrooper from California. We spent the next hour visiting different stations that were set up with everything from mortars to sniper rifles to humvees with .50 caliber guns mounted up top. This was pretty cool. Not that I expected otherwise, but I was struck by the courtesy and professionalism of the paratroopers. These are definitely the good guys!
After chow, “Brian” set up my helmet with a night vision optical in preparation for that night’s drop. He showed me how to turn it on/off, how to focus, etc. The helmet is designed to click down over your non-dominant eye, so obviously it takes some getting used to. As advertised, however, once on and focused it lights up the darkness completely … it’s almost unfair! You CANNOT hide from these things! One thing that I noticed was that if I had the night vision on for any length of time and then turned it off it would black out that eye for a few minutes. “Brian” explained that this was normal and that you just had to get used to it. They announced that the aircraft was inbound from Pope, and they would be dropping a load of equipment on the first pass, quickly followed by the first paratrooper drop (1,600 in all would jump that night).
You would think that you would be able to easily hear so many large aircraft approaching but they flew low with minimal running lights. Literally before you know it they’re on top of you and then gone; one after another, chutes dropping out of the back in rapid succession. I clicked my night vision off and you could barely make out shapes dropping from the sky. When clicked back on everything was happening in plain view. Next was wave after wave of the dropping paratroopers. They are on the ground FAST, running around like ants setting up equipment and vehicles. It looks like complete madness, but it’s a carefully choreographed exercise; everyone has a specific job to do and they set about doing it quickly and with precision. It’s a good thing that outfits like this are on our side.
This was truly a unique experience and one that I was fortunate to participate in. I’ll definitely keep an eye on where the 82nd is deployed moving forward and know that wherever they are, things on the ground will be squared away in short order.