As a member of the Royal Australian Air Force, I am often asked what I do for a living and many people assume that I must be a pilot. When I state that I am a loadmaster, I know, without fail, my response will warrant further explanation. However, to this day, I still feel I am unable to provide a succinct description of the role while simultaneously doing it justice.
As a member of the Australian Defence Force, you may think you know what a loadmaster does; you may even have observed one working on a flight while you were a passenger. The reality, however, is that most of these observations are made when the loadmaster is conducting the most benign of their responsibilities – monitoring aircraft systems and ensuring the passengers are as comfortable as possible.
What then is a loadmaster?
An Air Force loadmaster is a crew member on a tactical transport aircraft responsible for the calculation of aircraft weight and balance, loading/unloading, the rigging and dispatching of airdrop loads, and the safety and security of passengers and cargo. While this neatly summarises the role, it does not adequately express the responsibilities and demands of this unique occupation – it’s just too elementary.
Air Force loadmasters are employed on C-130J-30 Hercules, C-17A Globemaster and C-27J Spartan aircraft operated by Air Mobility Group (AMG). The crews that operate these aircraft conduct a very broad range of mission skills and work in some the most hazardous environments of anyone employed in aviation. If you seek an example, simply turn on the news and you will find some of these aircraft at the pointy end of the evacuations currently being conducted in Afghanistan.
Defining the challenges of being a loadmaster is difficult. While aptitude is important, in my experience it’s not the catalyst for what makes a great loadmaster. If you can understand some basic mathematical formulas, extrapolate data from a graph and can memorise a bunch of numbers, you most likely possess the required aptitude. This baseline aptitude is usually enough to demonstrate your ‘loadmaster prowess’ in a controlled environment, such as at a National Support Base with an established Air Movements section, but it will not be enough once you enter the loadmaster’s natural habitat – disarray.
Disarray can be described as a ‘state of disorganisation’. It is the loadmaster’s home ground, and it is where the best of us shine! It is also where many find themselves out of their depth wondering why they chose such a career.
While the aircraft captain remains firmly in command, it is the loadmaster who assumes control of coordinating activities on the ground. Loadmasters operate internationally under strict time pressures, and at times with limited support. If you have ever been involved in a Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) mission, you can be certain that AMG aircraft have been there for days, if not weeks before the cavalry arrived. It is these missions where things can stretch beyond disarray and become chaos! While chaos is rare, disarray is just another day in the office, and how a loadmaster copes in this environment is a defining factor of their operational effectiveness.
Disarray typically occurs at remote international airfields, where the true nature of the situation is not known until arrival. The forklift you were expecting turns out to be too small, the driver doesn’t speak English, nobody has inspected the cargo, the pallets are not prepared and the generator that needs to be drained of fuel isn’t.
Once the situation is understood, the loadmaster glances down at their watch, taking a mental note – ‘50 minutes till planned departure time, no sweat’.
Meanwhile, under a shady tree sipping their orange juice, the aircraft captain watches on in awe (kidding!) as disarray becomes a slick series of coordinated activities which create order.
Converting disarray into order relies on a loadmaster’s ability to forge relationships and coordinate individuals, groups, or agencies towards a common goal. Depending on the nature of the mission, loadmasters liaise directly with world leaders, senior military officers, regular forces, special forces, government officials, foreign defence personnel, emergency services, aid workers, displaced persons and, of course, the remainder of the crew. These broad range of interactions require a heightened level of social mastery and situational leadership.
Once the loadmaster has arranged customs, quarantine, inspected the cargo, prepared/accepted any dangerous goods, briefed the passengers, conducted baggage inspections, built the pallets, weighed everything, raised the paperwork, loaded the aircraft, secured the load, ensured structural limitations are not exceeded (there are many) and calculated the aircraft weight and balance, it’s now time to brief the captain and prepare for departure.
The loadmaster takes another quick glance at their watch as sweat drips down their face onto the paperwork – ‘5 minutes till engine start’.
As the aircraft engines roar to life and the loadmaster climbs aboard, it would be incorrect to assume that this is where they can finally relax. Loadmasters are in constant communication with the pilots, conducting various in-flight procedures, responding to checklists, monitoring aircraft systems/radios, de-coding messages and must remain ready to respond to any type of emergency.
If you have travelled on an AMG aircraft and observed a loadmaster not looking all that busy, be grateful, because if they were there is a good chance something has gone drastically wrong. Loadmasters are trained to deal with a range of in-flight emergencies including, but not limited to, hydraulic failures, fire, smoke and fumes and the jettison of cargo. If necessary, loadmasters can quite literally pull panels off aircraft in-flight, access the landing gear and lower it manually.
Some missions require the airdrop of cargo and/or paratroopers. While the drop itself can take just seconds, the planning, preparation and rigging is a meticulous and lengthy process with very little room for error. More complex loads can take hours to rig, check and double check! Then, as a crew, pilots and loadmasters work interdependently to deliver these loads onto a very precise location from hundreds, if not thousands of feet in the air. A great example of this is the C-17A crew who airdropped supplies to the Mawson Research Centre in Antarctica from 1300 feet – impressive!
While being a loadmaster does not define who you are, many would describe it as a lifestyle and not simply a job. Being a loadmaster requires an immense amount of personal dedication and sacrifice. In just my final year of flying, I accumulated approximately 600 C-130J-30 flying hours, participated in two HADR missions, and deployed to the Middle East Region. These three tasks alone totalled more than six months away from home.
Many loadmasters have walked out the door for a planned three-day task, promising to be home for that birthday or anniversary, only to have returned three weeks later having missed another milestone event.
Loadmasters are at times exposed to hard realities, such as the aero-medical evacuations following the 2002 Bali bombings. The blast killed 202 people (88 Australians) and left a further 209 injured. A total of five C-130 aircraft were used to fly out 66 casualties for treatment in Australia. The injuries were horrific and the scene confronting.
In 2004 disaster struck shortly after departure from Baghdad; a small calibre round impacted the aircraft instantly killing an American contractor. The damaged panel now forms part of the C-130J-30 fuselage trainer (cargo compartment simulator) at RAAF Base Richmond. It serves as a constant reminder to current and future generations of the very real risk associated with this occupation.
Finally, one of the most difficult tasks a loadmaster can ever do is the repatriation of an Australian soldier, sailor or aviator. In just one four-month deployment, I carried out six of these. I have never felt a greater sense of responsibility.
While the focus of this article has been on the loadmaster, it would be irresponsible of me to not mention the amazing pilots that fly these aircraft. Readers will have noticed that I took an opportunity to poke fun at the aircraft captain, sipping an orange juice under the shade of a tree (still funny). However, this is simply reflective of the humour shared between pilot and loadmaster.
AMG pilots fly the crew in and out of some of the most dangerous airfields in the world, utilising night vision equipment at extremely low altitudes. I often sat in the flight deck watching them do what they do best, and found myself amazed at how they made such a complex task appear simple. I genuinely have nothing but immense respect for these very talented professionals.
The relationship between an aircraft captain and a loadmaster is one that is built on trust. This doesn’t happen overnight, but once you have it, it can remain enduring for an entire career.
Personally, I believe that being a loadmaster is the greatest and most rewarding job in the world. One of my earliest mentors once said to me ‘we are all human and we all have bad days, but loadmasters are not allowed to have bad days’. I have used this simple piece of advice across my career.
About the Author: Ryan Wilson is an Air Force Loadmaster and is the current Deputy Command Aviation Safety Officer at HQAC. Ryan formerly held category ‘A’ on the C-130J-30 Hercules and in June 2021 completed a degree in Organisational Leadership. Ryan passionately advocates on behalf of enlisted personnel and hopes to inspire the next generation of loadmasters. Find him on Twitter.
Cover Image Credit: SGT Ben Dempster, Defence Image Gallery