The color you get by combining Army green, Marine Corps red and Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard blue is purple – a hue that symbolizes joint operations in the military world.
Air transportation specialists prepare for that “purple mission” during initial entry instruction at the Air Force’s 345th Training Squadron, Fort Lee. It is the largest of the unit’s training courses conducted on this purple military installation.
“As 2T2s, or Port Dawgs, we are expert logisticians in the military, and we move anyone’s cargo within the DOD. That could be civilian contractors, the Navy, the Coast Guard, anybody,” emphasized Staff Sgt. Lucas Gardona, an Air Force instructor. “They bring their cargo in and get it accepted by certain agencies, then it’s our job to make sure it’s air worthy, documented and tracked appropriately.”
Port Dawgs move people, mail and cargo around the globe, noted Master Sgt. Matthew Hubbard, noncommissioned officer in charge of the Air Transportation Apprentice Course. “If you see in the news American troops overseas anywhere, it’s most likely we (the Air Force) sent them there,” he said.
“Add tanks, ammunition, household goods, COVID-19 safety and medical items, humanitarian supplies and more,” Gardona said with a laugh. “There’s a wide variety that we move, and we teach the air transportation specialists how to prepare and load all of that for C-130 and C-17 aircraft at our training facilities here at Fort Lee.”
Their knowledge of aircraft types and lift capability also must be extensive, Gardona further noted. The military airlift inventory “includes what feels like a million different aircraft,” in his words, ranging from Boeing 747s and refuelers such as the KC-10 and 135, as well as the C-model aircraft, like the behemoth C-5 Super Galaxy.
“Every now and then, we’ll see some Canadian and Russian planes,” Gardona pointed out. “We can load any aircraft we need to.”
Port Dawg students here spend a lot of time in Bay 1 of the cargo transportation training hangar learning how to in-process shipments and prepare them for movement. When a DOD entity gets their cargo accepted for transport in an Air Force plane, the shippers will drop it off and 2T2s will document it, make sure the billing and tracking numbers are right, and match the shipping list with all of the cargo to ensure it is delivered correctly to its destination.
They also will do security and safety inspections of the cargo before it is palletized and placed on a plane. The students work through all of the steps before moving the shipment to another bay for pallet preparation.
“I think the coolest thing about all of this is that its DOD wide, and it’s not just boxes and pre-packaged items that would be the first thing that comes to most people’s minds,” Gardona observed. “A lot of our newly arriving students, and other branches, too, think all we do is move boxes all day. But we move anything, literally, that has to do with war or humanitarian missions or actual people.”
Hubbard picked up on the opportunity to delve further into their training mission. “We train with the Army as well here. We teach them pallet-building classes to prepare them for future deployments. We also have the captains’ course where we brief the future leaders on what they can expect when they have cargo to be delivered.
“So, it’s a very joint environment,” he continued. “We have joint instructors – Navy and civilian. We also have foreign allies, or multi-national students, who come here for training.”
Flight Commander 1st Lt. Rosanna Hopkins stepped in to highlight another joint venture of late that brought smiles to the faces of the training leaders.
“Recently, you started a bridge program with the riggers, so they can come here before a mission to use our mock C-130 to jump from and refresh their muscle memory in exiting the plane,” she added.
The focus of the conversation then returned to the surrounding bay where the 2T2s were packing a pallet tightly and safely with a variety of weights, sizes, net restraint sets and the step-by-step guidelines given to them by their instructors.
“I think this is what makes us the most versatile asset in the Air Force. (It’s) how we can consolidate and organize cargo in a manner that we can on-load and offload it extremely quickly with our Tunner 60k loader. Our 463L pallets and net restraint sets keep things from flying around in the back of the aircraft,” Gardona said.
Once the pallet is built and restrained with the net, it is taken by forklift to a staging area where it is organized by weight and other specifications.
“This is part of load planning and another part of our job,” Gardona continued. “We make sure all of the cargo is in a specific position in the aircraft to make sure it flies straight and level. So, you preset all of your pallets with the heaviest thing in the middle to go right by the wings.”
The students also learn the hand signals to guide forklift operators in the staging area and cargo loaders that move shipments to and from the aircraft.
“This is the cycle of some of what we do in the area of cargo processing through ramp operations,” Gardona concluded. “We also have an array of different functions such as customer service, load planning, air terminal operations and special handling. We have so many different types of functions that our airmen learn how to do. It’s almost crazy how much they learn during their time here at the Training Squadron.”
Airman Travis Franklin offered a student perspective on Port Dawg training. It’s where he landed when the mechanic specialty he wanted was ruled out. “I really like working with my hands, but I’m color blind so that killed a lot of jobs for me,” he said. “Being a 2T2 is very hands on, and I like that. I’ve also wanted to travel, and we are needed all around the world. I got lucky and got my first choice, Kadena Air Force Base, Okinawa, Japan, as my first duty station.”