Covert operations in high-threat environments; C-17 aircrews must fly in the dark

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Dorothy Goepel
  • 97th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
This is the first article in a three-part series on C-17 and night vision training at Altus Air Force Base. 

The first-ever C-17 combat landing using night vision goggles occurred in November 2001. The sortie was one of 64 flown by five aircrews from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., during a period of eight days in which they landed nightly on an unlit Afghanistan dirt strip, delivering 481 passengers and 970 short tons of equipment to assist a Marine unit, Task Force 58, according to Air Force news reports.
Special Operations Low Level II crews were, at the time, the only crews qualified to fly with NVGs.
Two weeks before Christmas 2001, Maj. Eric J. Howland completed a contingency upgrade at Charleston along with other pilots. "It was one sim [simulator training session] and one flight and we left for Afghanistan the following weeks to fly covertly in and out of Afghanistan," he said. 

In 2001 through early 2003, Major Howland flew missions to Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots. "We were barely trained [in December 2001] to employ NVGs in a hostile area where all we were given was the latitude and longitude of where a runway was supposed to be," he said. "There was a very large learning curve while under the fog and friction of war."
At the time, Major Howland was a captain from McChord AFB, Wash. He said he recalls that McChord AFB sent approximately six "hard crews" to Charleston AFB to receive Contingency Airland NVG Training. The hard crews consisted of three pilots and two loadmasters who had to fly together and could not be intermingled. This continued, he said, until the Air Mobility Command NVG training program was implemented in late January 2002. 

Major Howland received NVG Instructor Pilot training while at McChord AFB and currently serves as the assistant director of Operations for Altus AFB's 58th Airlift Squadron, the world's only C-17 Formal Training Unit.
Prior to Major Howland completing the contingency upgrade, Charleston had upgraded six or so crews. Until the contingency upgrade at Charleston, only C-17 SOLL II crews received training in their unit, he pointed out. "No formal NVG course had been started prior to this period," he said, noting that C-17 SOLL II crews had been undergoing NVG training since at least the mid-nineties. 

Air Mobility Command published an NVG upgrade program to be taught by the AMC wings in January 2002, Major Howland said. In October 2004, the syllabus for C-17 Pilot Initial Qualification Training was released and implemented, replacing a co-pilot syllabus that had no NVG training component. 

The C-17 Formal Training Unit's first PIQ flight using NVGs occurred in January 2005, said Major Howland, and in late 2005, the C-17 school began training crews in the use of NVGs. In January 2006, NVG training was integrated into all syllabi but one - the instructor loadmaster course.
All C-17 student-pilots undergo multiple simulator lessons using NVGs rather than only the one lesson that Major Howland received in December 2001 as part of a contingency upgrade. As well, students are required to fly a C-17 at night using NVG equipment before they graduate from Altus. This year, the 58th Airlift Squadron trained more than 1,000 of its 1,150 plus students in the use of NVGs, according to Major Howland. 

"We fly three to five NVG sorties at a minimum of two to three nights a week, with a sortie duration of four to five hours," Major Howland said. "Pilots and loadmasters are trained in the Low-level Environment with simulated threat avoidance, engine running off-loads, combat off-loads, tactical departures and landings, assault landing zone on a 90-foot by 3,500-foot assault strip and NVG airdrop."