by Jason Tudor (originally published in the March 2002 Airman magazine)
There are no term papers, little homework and spit wads are kept to a minimum. Students from 50 states and around the world flock here despite the lack of fraternities, keg parties, a Division I football team or the lure of an Ivy League pedigree. The learning materials were produced six decades ago, and — maybe the real buzz kill — the school’s never been one of the top 10 party campuses. Ever.
Many of the instructors dress not in tweed jackets but in one-piece pine green jumpsuits — with name tags, no less — like retirees from central Florida. Some students are forced to wear them, too. The teachers happily gather together, share their colorful classroom stories, go over lesson plans and make time to tutor students — despite how incorrigible some may act.
While individuality reigns at places like Berkeley, on this campus, rebellion, hippy lettuce smoke-ins and caustic free speech all give way to mission, teamwork and solid execution.
Those traits, the faculty says, are what draw students to the University of Hercules at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., the single-stop for C-130 training for the Department of Defense.
Truly an institute of “higher” learning, the 314th Airlift Wing at Little Rock provides the training needed for aircrews, maintainers and others who will find their way into the C-130’s widely varied missions.
Those who trek there annually get more than just training. The Air Force has created a C-130 “super base” in rural Jacksonville, Ark., co-locating the training wing with two active flying units. Those are the Air Mobility Command’s 436th Airlift Group and the Air National Guard’s 189th Airlift Wing, which have more than 80 four-prop “Hercs.”
Instructors fly 830 days worth of flying hours over a 365-day period, and teach 11 qualification courses. The Lockheed-Martin-run simulator training employs 93 teachers who have 57 years of flying time, two more than the Air Force has tenure as a service. The school runs on a 24-hour clock, launching one training mission for every hour of the day.
Numbers aside, the dean of the school said there is no equivalent or like lesson plan anywhere that matches Herc U. in quality.
“No one is better at training C-130 aircrew and technicians than we are,” said 314th Airlift Wing commander Col. David Scott.
In the classroom
Dingy, scratched up wooden desks are replaced by 40-year-old cockpits where pilots and navigators learn low-level flight, combat aerial delivery — air drops — flying at night, various navigation techniques and more.
Potential loadmasters learn the ins and outs, loading and unloading old wooden pallets of supplies, materials and food — like the rations dropped over Afghanistan. “Load” students also gain an understanding of weight balancing and run through several required checklists during flights.
Freshman flight engineers attempt to snatch the grain of rice from their master’s hand by learning what makes the plane tick. They must learn appropriate takeoff and landing distances by judging load weight, size and other factors, as well as manage a wealth of operating systems.
Teachers deal with a varied student body — age, background, service and citizenship all vary, making for a C-130 classroom melting pot. For instance, many of the fresh loadmasters are young airmen straight from basic training, while Air Force students who vie to become Herc flight engineers must retrain from other careers.
Each lesson plan intentionally mixes service members and exchange students together during training flights to acclimate them to a joint environment. It’s not unusual to see a Marine Corps pilot — who may later fly the blue-and-gold Blue Angels’ C-130 nicknamed Fat Albert — training alongside a Coast Guardsman who will fly the red, white and blue HC-130 Hercules long-range surveillance and transport.
The same intermingling applies to loadmaster and flight engineer training. Singapore air force Staff Sgt. C.T. Lee, a loadmaster student, said he finds the joint training beneficial and is doing his best to absorb everything thrown at him.
“It’s very challenging,” Lee said. “There’s a lot to learn. I’m doing my best to keep up with it all.”
Meanwhile, as Lee learns “load,” other students are learning the finer art of creating pallets for C-130 loading — the training wing does more air drops and loads more pallets than any other unit in the Air Force annually — and senior officers are relearning the Herc on a campus as busy as any major university.
For the newest students, those so green to Air Force life you can still smell the packing material, it can be overwhelming, according to Staff Sgt. Matt Alter, a loadmaster instructor. He encourages a fast acclimation.
“As quick as we can get them matured, we get them into an aircraft,” said Alter, who uses his seven years’ service and 2,500 flying hours as currency with students. “It’s a little easier with retrainees.”
Aside from the newness, Capt. Jeff Harrison, an instructor pilot and aircraft commander, said creating cohesion between crews is his biggest challenge. He likens his work to that of a symphony conductor.
“I have various sections, and I want them all to chime in at the appropriate time so I can create a harmonious passage,” he said with a wide smile. “We want them all to work together and understand their roles.”
For the teachers, however, some days are better than others. There are times when students and teachers alike need motivation to ensure the material stays fresh. When the mission and teachings get monotonous, it can become like the movie “Groundhog Day,” where Bill Murray experiences the same day over and over again.
Harrison said complacency — even in the classroom — is a killer.
“We stay on guard. These individuals are unqualified,” the captain said. “One form of instruction doesn’t fit every student. You have to spark them to see what motivates them.”
Alter agreed, saying sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the tidal wave of mission tasks.
“It’s a huge responsibility. The new loadmaster has a lot of plane to worry about. After a while of starting at 3:30 a.m. and leaving at 3:30 p.m., their brains become mush. We need to change it up and keep the minds fresh.”
Meanwhile, in the outdoor classroom, Master Sgt. Vincent “Dale” Cole, the maintenance production superintendent for the 53rd Airlift Squadron, manages repairs for more than 20 of the “flying antiques.” He also oversees, trains and educates more than 200 maintenance troops.
“It seems like the more we fly C-130s, the better they do. If they sit for a while, they develop things from just being static,” the 22-year veteran commented, saying sometimes the Hercs just break. “It goes in phases. They’ll fly real well for a while, and then they’ll just give up the ghost.”
Cole helps new maintainers earn an education, but he also helps them get an A+ in leadership and teamwork. Earning high marks in that grade, the wing commander said, may be the most essential.
Scott, selected for promotion to brigadier general, said leadership is the most important trait his wing emphasizes.
“We need everyone as a leader. Eventually, even the newest airman just turned out of tech school has to make his own judgments. Leadership permeates everything we do. We have to wake up that passion inside.”
The products of that passion are evident. The wing received recent accolades like the Air Education and Training Command Maintenance Daedalian Award and the command’s maintenance effectiveness honors. The awards are a testament, Cole said, to a team of professionals that never stops passing that award-winning knowledge to students who will one day seize the teachers’ mantel.
“The neat part is seeing them grow. When they accomplish a tough task, it’s something they can write home to mom and dad about,” Cole said, smiling. “Just three months ago, they were brand new and didn’t know which direction the flight line ran. It’s never boring.”
It never gets old
The 2,000 who will earn “Herc diplomas” annually get a foundation to fit into any number of C-130 roles. It might be slaying enemies in the deadly AC-130 Gunship, secretly infiltrating Navy SEALs with the MC-130 Combat Talon, broadcasting messages to enemies in an EC-130 Compass Call, dropping off cargo in the unmodified — or slick — C-130 or flying one of the other variants of the Herc.
Memorable experiences are common among the alumni. Capt. John Collins, a navigator, airlifted a fellow aviator’s remains from Cambodia. Alter flew one of the first medical evacuation missions out of Bosnia. The wing commander’s career has taken him through a series of clandestine special operations missions.
There are hundreds of other stories from the instructor cadre, and a theme resonates: this life never gets old.
Harrison’s most memorable experience came recently while training a Herc pilot from the northern African nation of Chad. The student had a little more than 300 flying hours, but hadn’t actually flown in three years. He spoke some English, and because of Chad’s economic problems — roughly 65 percent of the country’s population lives in poverty — he had little money.
Despite the hardships, Harrison was proud to help the student pass and return home with Herc credentials.
“It’s fantastic,” Harrison said. “It was a unique experience, and I’ll always have it.”
These kinds of opportunities, ones told with broad smiles and exaggerated gestures, permeate people here. It’s infectious. But the schoolhouse is short of teachers. Scott thinks he knows why.
“People in our line of work like going to war,” he said. “When folks think about going to a formal training environment, they think they are hanging up their spurs.
“The reality is this: There is no more critical part of combat power than a competent aircrew member or maintainer,” he added. “To take raw material and turn it into someone you can throw the keys at, trust that person to go anywhere on the face of the Earth and do the mission, is very important.”
Harrison believes he lost nothing by committing to the Little Rock campus.
“I go TDY every time I send a student out the door because a part of me is over there. That’s my legacy. If you want to be the best, chances are you’ll be the best. You will either die trying or you’ll succeed,” he said.
“In either case, you’ve met the mark.”
Student navigator Capt. Tim Hyer agreed, and said he loves the opportunity he has flying the Herc.
“It’s just a fun plane to fly. It has an important mission, and I can’t think of another weapon system in the world that can do what this one does,” Hyer said.
Deliberate and succinct instruction is coupled with the faculty’s joy for a job that molds untrained service members into fledgling professionals without tricks, short cuts or too many hard-knock lessons.
“Napoleon said it takes 10,000 casualties to make a division commander. We can’t afford to crash airplanes in order to teach people how to employ them safely,” Scott said. “It’s about heart.”
Cole’s diploma is almost 20 years old, but he still gets a thrill from the outgrowth of his education.
“When you marshal an aircraft out and back, that’s the most satisfying feeling,” he said. “A lot of guys I’ve known who are now out of the Air Force miss that feeling.”
Like those who now miss it, the staff and faculty of the University of Hercules say potential students will love the motivation they’ll come away with as alumni.
“When you look down that ramp and see those C-130s, you just want to stand up and salute,” Scott said.