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Tactical Flying Exercise Takes Off

The view from a Hercules cockpit during a low level tactical sortie in Exercise KIWI FLAG 2013
The view from a Hercules cockpit during a low level tactical sortie in Exercise KIWI FLAG 2013

This weekend, rural areas of New Zealand may hear the sudden roar and see low flying military transports, as Exercise SOUTHERN KATIPO gets under way. The big military transport aircraft of the multi-national force have begun delivering the first of the coalition troops to the exercise area.

At Ohakea in the Wing Operations Centre the aircrews were busy planning their flights, some of which will begin before dawn each day. For those missions, the particular crews face a 2am wake up call in order to work through the many preparations necessary before their aircraft can fly the coalition troops south.

The calm professionalism of our Air Force was on display today, as a crew headed by Squadron Leader James Anderson undertook a practice tactical air drop. Detailed planning went into the flight, and his crew had familiarised themselves with the terrain they would fly over.

At only 250 feet (80m) above ground level flying at 200 knots (320kmh) the hills and ridgelines go past very fast. Even the sheep, easily scared, have almost no time to react before the grey forbidding shape of the Hercules thunders over their pasture.

From the confines of the cargo hold there are only a handful of portholes through which to glimpse the ground below. Yet as the big aircraft comes to its next turning point the ground disappears and you are left gazing at sky and clouds while the aircraft banks steeply. Across the cargo hold through the opposite porthole you can glimpse trees, fences and hill tops racing past in an alarmingly close blur, as the aircraft turns. This of course is one of their carefully calculated risks; the Hercules wing reaches 66 feet beyond the fuselage, leaving only 184 feet between the wing tip and the nearest ground…not much margin if things go wrong.

Over the intercom the crew’s teamwork is apparent. There is no time for any chit chat; the pilot is flying and listening, the Co-pilot is map-reading and warning of obstacles:

“Over the next ridge line, look for the valley coming in at right angle…but watch out for transmission lines at 12 o’clock.”

The quiet commentary continues, the Air Warfare Officer is also map reading and watching her flight plan: "You were ten seconds early at that turning point," she cautions.     
 
Seated behind and between the Pilot, the Flight Engineer provides another set of eyes. At 250 feet the Hercules is in uncontrolled airspace - top-dressing planes, hang gliders and private helicopters can fly here unfettered too. On this sortie the crew sights and avoids five other small aircraft going about their business.

And throughout the flight there is the turbulent movement - like an unpredictable roller coaster – which means everyone must be strapped in or, if needing to move, hang on tight.

Up a river valley, across the seemingly endless ridges of the central North Island, then back to the coast, our big bird thunders on before reaching the ‘Initial Point’. This is where the Hercules steadies on target, then - exactly on time - flies over the drop zone and unleashes its load. 

At the post flight de-brief, the crew are pleased; they were just 3 yards (2.5m) off the intended target. As far as any soldier would be concerned, the load had arrived on time and in the right place.

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