Russian aircraft transports rescue helicopters to Afghanistan

MOFFETT FEDERAL AIRFIELD, Calif. -- Air National Guardsmen here worked with an aircraft April 20-22 that was vastly different from the MC-130P Combat Shadow tankers, HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopters and other U.S. Air Force aircraft they're accustomed to.

129th Rescue Wing Airmen were deploying to Afghanistan and needed aircraft to transport HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopters. Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have kept C-17 Globemasters and C-5 Galaxies extremely busy, and the high operations tempo of these aircraft led to the scheduling of contracted cargo airlift, according to Senior Master Sgt. Anthony Przymus of the Logistics Readiness Squadron.

Enter the Russian Volga-Dnepr AN-124 long-range heavy transport aircraft.

The enormous white fuselage splashed with blue paint and Russian writing provided a rare sight for 129th Airmen. "This was the first time the AN-124 hauled 129th cargo," Przymus said.

Volga-Dnepr Airlines is a civilian company based out of Russia and has the world's largest fleet of AN-124 aircraft, according to its Web site. The AN-124's unique capabilities and loading equipment make it possible to transport oversized cargo, like heavy engines, satellites and helicopters. In January 2002, Volga-Dnepr became the first civil aviation company to operate flights to Afghanistan.

Volga-Dnepr transports military aircraft, cargo and servicemembers all over the world, said Sergey Menashev, a radio operator for the AN-124 who has flown on the aircraft for more than 20 years.

"We airlift the military quite a bit and fly in to combat zones in Afghanistan," he said. "It's nice to be here in California."

After the aircraft landed and the air crew disembarked, the load crew got down to business. The nose of the plane opened up and the Russian and 129th load crews worked through a language barrier to solidify the load plan for the three Pave Hawk helicopters.

"Once they landed, the crew wanted to load the cargo right away, which helped facilitate schedules," said 1st Lt. Mario Montero, Logistics Readiness Squadron installation deployment officer. "The crew was really friendly and timely."

With the nose cone up and the front end open, the Russian crew operated the winching equipment and 129th Airmen steered the helicopters up the ramp and in to the aircraft. The process required swift communication and coordination between the two crews.

While the crews loaded the helicopters, Tech. Sgt. John Szelog, 129th Maintenance Squadron electronic countermeasures maintainer, curiously inspected the AN-124. He was one of the two 129th Airmen scheduled to fly on the aircraft.

"I'm looking forward to the flight - it should be interesting," he said with a big grin.

Three hours after the AN-124 landed, the helicopters were loaded and secured for the long journey to Afghanistan. But there was more work to be done.

A C-17 flown and operated by Air Force Reservists from McChord Air Force Base was loaded with deploying 129th personnel during the helicopter loading. The AN-124 was parked near the C-17 on the tarmac.

Adding to the Total Force mix was an active duty Tanker Airlift Control Element from Travis Air Force Base. The TALCE team provided necessary equipment to load the cargo aircraft. They also provided additional expertise preparing the cargo for proper air shipment.

"This is a great example of our total Air Force at work," said Col. Wayne Albright, 129th vice commander. "The Active Duty, Guard and Reserves train to and work with the same standards making even the novelty of loading an AN-124 go effortlessly."