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Logistics Readiness Squadrons load Air Force for deployments

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- "We're the first in and the last out," explains Tech. Sgt. David Dries.

A member of the 72nd Logistics Readiness Squadron and one of a handful of technicians responsible for loading and unloading aircraft, Sergeant Dries and his team are often involved at the beginning and ending of any deployment.

"We usually go in with security forces and secure the airfield," Sergeant Dries says. "And we're usually the last ones out because nobody is going to leave until we load them."

"That's what we do," says Donna Britton West, transportation mobility technician with the 72nd LRS. "The transporters. That's exactly what we do, transport stuff."

If airplanes flying through the sky is the most visible aspect of the U.S. Air Force, loading and unloading those aircraft is one of the least visible. But getting people and cargo where they need to be is part and parcel of what the transporters do.

"We're considered transporters because we do everything concerned with transporting passengers and cargo," Ms. West says.

The transporters work according to a timeline that begins with when an aircraft is scheduled to depart. They then work backwards, setting a schedule of when pallets of cargo, vehicles and people need to be loaded. The schedule includes how long it will take to process deploying personnel and inspect pallets and cargo for safety. And it's all timed to the minute, with the plane ready for loading or unloading as soon as it comes to a stop.

"The end result is that we are finished before that airplane hits the ground," Ms. West said. Various departments oversee different aspects of transportation, such as making sure paperwork is in order for cargo and personnel. Technicians also check to make sure cargo is loaded in a certain order and that units, which are responsible for packing their own pallets of equipment, have packed correctly.

Incorrectly prepared pallets or equipment are "frustrated," that is pulled out of the marshalling line and repacked before it can be considered for loading. During operations, a "Quick Fix Team" of experts from the deploying units and the transporters are on hand to resolve any issues. "We have a team of people ready for any problems," Ms. West says. "And they can immediately fix it and put it back on the marshalling line."

Most of the work done by Tinker's transporters are what they call Chapter 3 -- handling people and cargo for deployment. "Our whole regime is based around deployment," Ms. West said. "Everybody deploys through here. We even deployed the Navy a few weeks ago." The transporters themselves often find themselves deployed.

"You can count on it," says Senior Airman Glyn Meranto of the 72nd LRS.

Sergeant Dries says several of their members are currently deployed. He and five others will soon be deploying as well.

Staff Sgt. Andre Miller, an experienced transporter, has been deployed around the world, including one stint in Antarctica ("It was quite cold") and one trip to Alaska, where as part of Operation Keiko, he helped move the killer whale star of the movie Free Willy.

To take up the slack during deployments and exercises, augmentees are used to help with the physical task of loading and unloading aircraft. Many, says Ms. West, come from 72nd Force Support Squadron and the 72nd Medical Group. The 72nd LRS provides training for the augmentees, who then help whenever there is an exercise or deployment.

"Last November we worked 36 hours straight," Sergeant Dries said. "We were sleeping in our offices."

Sometimes the missions overlap, such as when departing cargo coincides with arriving aircraft loaded with equipment to support, for example, presidential visits. "We do that, too," Ms. West says. "I'm proud of that."

Exercises also keep the transporters busy, such as those in preparation for the upcoming Operational Readiness Inspection in November.

"That's our baby," Ms West says. "We're gearing up for that now. During exercises we have 12-hour shifts with 12 on and 12 off. We don't stop until we're finished. The same with deployments."

The training, too, doesn't end. Ms. West is the only Air Force-certified instructor of the Automated Air Loading Planning System used to compute the weight and balance for aircraft deploying cargo and passengers. Incorrectly loaded or overloaded aircraft pose a grave danger. She and the other technicians in her office, Jennifer Zenzen, Brett Neeley and Whiskey Booth, teach weekly classes to units at Tinker on subjects such as how to package and prepare cargo and equipment , including dangerous cargo.

"They have to take those courses in order to maintain readiness," she says.

And because of their expertise, they even field transportation questions from other units at other bases.

"We consider ourselves the experts on tactical and contingency movements," Ms. West says.

"We have a wealth of information with people who have been all over the world and who have loaded any type of aircraft you can imagine."

Despite the hard work, they love what they do.

"I love my job," says Sergeant Miller. "The thing that makes it all worth while is when you see the mission launched."

What they do is not always seen, but it is important.

"It's like a big stage show," Sergeant Miller says. "We're the guys behind the curtains. But I don't mind, because what we do is important."