JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- The command to “sound off for equipment check” resonates through the immense interior of a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft. The call of “One, OK!” finalizes the equipment check, then 170-pound Soldiers carrying 150 pounds of gear each shuffle like zombies toward the open door of the massive cargo aircraft cruising at 1,000 feet. The light changes to green and they stumble towards the door with a hand covering their reserve chute. Recalling their training, they take a giant leap into the unknown.
That sensation is something familiar to many at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
Airborne operations have become one of the most monumental developments in the United States’ strategic military doctrine since the use of aircraft in the early 1900s, rivaling the tactics and concepts employed by Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben as he taught the brand new American Army how to fight during the Revolutionary War.
Although not instrumental in the creation of airborne operations, JBER has played a significant role in its continued development when the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division was created in 2005 as the only airborne BCT in the Pacific theater.
Since then, seeing Soldiers descend from C-17 Globemaster IIIs, C-130 Hercules and even UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters in less-than-ideal, frigid Alaska conditions, has become a regular sight at JBER.
“The 4-25 is the only arctic airborne unit in the Army,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Darren Cufaude, a platoon sergeant and jumpmaster with Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment. “The airborne mission at JBER is very important. We and all of the other supporting units are trained to operate in the harshest of arctic environments, something that truly separates us from others.”
With 53 jumps under his belt, Cufaude said he has absolute trust in everything and everyone associated with JBER’s airborne mission.
“With the demand for risk measures on everything we do, I feel that it is safer than ever, everything is tested and retested before it is pushed out to us,” Cufaude said. “Neither of us [Army or Air Force] want anything to happen that could affect the mission or injure a Soldier or Airman.”
From the pilots with the 517th, 144th, and 249th airlift squadrons who try to keep the aircraft’s flight as smooth as possible to the 3rd Wing weather specialists who monitor conditions on drop zones, there are many Airmen at JBER who work closely with the Army. But none of them have a more unique relationship on personnel airdrops than loadmasters.
“We work more closely and often with the Army than any other units on JBER,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Joe Braunwarth, assigned to the 517th AS. “There are times when we make two to three personnel drops in a week, and we are always planning future exercises together. We have a huge area of land to work with up here in Alaska and multiple drop zones to train on.”
The importance of units like the 517th AS and the 4/25 IBCT can be easily summed up by a quote from Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, who is widely regarded as the father of the U.S. Air Force. “I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world,” Mitchell said, “I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.”
“We have a very unique mission here at JBER that makes airborne operations so important,” Braunwarth said. “We are situated in a very strategic location, being able to touch many critical parts of the globe in just several hours. I believe airborne operations at JBER are extremely critical to our nation’s defensive strategies and capabilities.”
Airborne operations do not come cheap. Aircraft, manpower, trucks to transport Soldiers, parachutes, and meals for long missions add up to a huge cost. However, the benefit to airborne operations at JBER is in the capabilities they provide.
“From C-47 [Skytrains] dropping troops in Normandy, to C-130s in Vietnam and up to the present day with Soldiers jumping out of C-17s into Iraq, multiple decades of airborne operations have proven to be highly effective and successful,” Braunwarth said. “At JBER, we are able to deliver world-class Soldiers anywhere in the world whenever needed.”
Airmen and Soldiers have an immense appreciation for airborne operations, Braunwarth continued. The lessons taught at loadmaster, jumpmaster and airborne schools offer a unique perspective into the mindset of those who do the job.
“I volunteered to do this line of work,” Cufaude said. “It takes a special kind of person to throw themselves from an aircraft in flight, but I love it and would do it every day if I could.”
As future military theories continue to develop, so too will airborne operations. The military texts by Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz contain antiquated tactics, but many current military strategists continue to draw inspiration from their writings. Massive airborne operations like those used in operations Husky, Overlord, and Market Garden may also be a dated philosophy, but they continue to influence the theory and future of military operations.