U.S., Indian Airmen train side by side to sharpen airlift skills

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Paul Tucker
  • 15th Wing Public Affairs

On the morning of Nov. 18, 2022, with the sun peeking through a hazy horizon, the residents of Hindan Air Base, near New Delhi in northern India, were greeted by a new sight.  Parked next to a neatly aligned row of Indian Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft was another C-17, only this one distinguishable by a bright American flag painted above the red, yellow and black emblem of Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. 

After a lengthy process of airlifting supplies for U.S. Army Pacific from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, in support of Exercise Yudh Abhyas, the U.S. Air Force’s 535th Airlift Squadron and the IAF’s No. 81 Squadron were finally ready to get down to business.

In the spirit of “do more with less,” this year marked the third time that the 535th AS and the 81 SQ have utilized the opportunity the Army’s biannual exercise Yudh Abhyas brings to join forces and execute pre-planned, rigorous training. 

The main focus of these engagements was to develop an understanding of unit operating procedures as well as each unit’s status of training. The first iteration occurred in India in February 2021 and helped bolster the 81 SQ’s formation and heavy equipment airdrop capabilities. The second Yudh Abhvas engagement occurred in Alaska in August 2021 and sharpened both units’ mountainous, low-level flying and formation night-vision goggle procedures. 

“These opportunities have honed individual skillsets and, more importantly, demonstrated the ability of two partner nations to interoperate in the Department of Defense’s priority theater,” said Capt. Alec Nelson, PACAF’s 535th AS exercise team leader.

The most recent version of Yudh Abhyas was a new mixture of academics and operations split between Hindan and Agra Indian Air Bases. The 535th AS contingent featured three C-17 pilots, two loadmasters, a flying crew chief and a maintenance production supervisor. 

Starting in Hindan, the two squadrons initially concentrated on academics. Given their recent experience flying in and out of Leh Airfield, nearly 11,000 feet above sea level, the IAF team briefed their U.S. counterparts on lessons learned conducting high-altitude airlift operations. Likewise, the U.S. crews provided instruction and insight into their use of the Joint Precision Airdrop System, an emerging capability for the Indian Air Force. While the pilots discussed formation airdrop maneuvers, the loadmasters walked through equipment loading and rigging procedures, which provided vital refresher training for some of the younger IAF aircrew members.

For nearly two weeks, the units engaged in a steady rhythm of planning, flying, and debriefing. The squadrons each completed six flights in the vast training areas surrounding Hindan and Agra. Each training flight validated the crew’s proficiency in operating with one another while performing sets of pre-briefed maneuvers and various airdrop profiles. 

Beginning with basic visual formation airdrop, the training flights slowly grew in complexity, culminating with a GPS-degraded, single-ship flight flown by U.S Air Force crews with IAF observers on board. One of the more significant training flights was a successful NVG formation which verified the IAF’s vital currency since first acquiring the capability in 2019.

Just as important as flying, during this two-week venture, Pacific Air Force’s 15th Wing bolstered its emphasis on maintenance integration by observing the IAF’s current policies and procedures. The work paid dividends when the U.S. C-17 required servicing for liquid oxygen as well as multiple replacement tires due to tread wear beyond limits. The maintenance team worked closely with IAF maintainers and the on-site Boeing Representative to develop a solution for not only sourcing the liquid oxygen and tires, but also how to use IAF equipment to perform the required maintenance. That the U.S. C-17 did not miss a single flight due to maintenance is a testament to the value of focusing on maintenance integration with key partner nations operating the C-17.

“Overall, this exercise was definitely a success for both organizations and both nations,” Nelson said. “The two squadrons validated how our combined training has benefited current and future performance, and we engaged in an exchange of ideas on a level not previously undertaken.” 

These efforts have helped focus future training as both units gear up for PACAF’s Exercise COPE INDIA in April 2023. COPE INDIA will continue to emphasize visual airdrop procedures while adding hands-on JPADS operations. 

For the world’s two largest democracies, this open exchange of ideas and a continued strong partnership help maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region.