WASHINGTON (AFPN) -- They like to think of themselves as the "18-wheeler trucks" that supply the front lines in the war on terrorism.
C-130 Hercules aircraft crews from the 2nd and 41st Airlift Squadrons at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., deliver food, ammunition and servicemembers throughout Southwest Asia. Unlike larger C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft that provide long-haul support to logistical hubs, C-130 crews perform the tactical portion of the airlift mission, often landing on rough dirt airstrips or airdropping servicemembers and equipment into hostile areas.
"We can land anywhere," said Capt. Andy McGee, assistant director of operations and a C-130 pilot for the 2nd AS. "All we need is 3,000 feet (of runway)."
Airmen from the two squadrons work together as what Captain McGee calls a "super squadron" to fly thousands of sorties throughout the theater.
"We're putting the beans and bullets there to support the war on terror," said Master Sgt. Willie Wellbrock, a tactics loadmaster and superintendent for the 2nd AS. The crews also evacuate wounded servicemembers from the battle zone.
Since their introduction into the Air Force inventory four decades ago, the turboprop C-130s have “earned their stripes” on a full range of peacetime and wartime missions. What makes them so versatile is their ability to haul a wide variety of oversized cargo and to deliver their cargo into remote areas lacking fixed airport facilities.
"The vast majority of airlift in Iraq is C-130s," Captain McGee said. "I guess you could call us the American Eagle airline of the theater."
Sergeant Wellbrock said the C-130 crews in Southwest Asia conduct missions exactly as they train: Flying in at a low level and spending minimal time "in the box" before taking off again to avoid becoming a target.
Even before Sept. 11, 2001, C-130 crews from the 2nd and 41st AS were flying in Southwest Asia to provide logistical support for Operation Southern Watch, which enforced the no-fly zone over southern Iraq.
But the terrorist attacks affected the workload and the crews themselves, Captain McGee said. Sorties in the region no longer felt like "milk runs."
"After 9-11, we all felt that we had a true mission to go do," he said. "Everything we did became much more focused."
The operational tempo picked up dramatically, with crews sometimes pulling 18- to 20-hour workdays to fulfill mission requirements that continue around the clock, seven days a week.
This pace has sharpened the crews' skills while giving younger Airmen far more experience than might be expected so early in their careers, Captain McGee said.
"You'd be surprised how many loadmasters we have who have flown more than 100 combat missions and still aren't yet old enough to drink a beer," he said.
"Since 9-11, kids come in and mature so quickly," Sergeant Wellbrock said. "They learn very early on that what we do is all about teamwork, with everybody relying on everybody else."
Crews keep motivated by seeing firsthand the contribution they are making and by getting the opportunity to apply their skills to support the war on terrorism, Sergeant Wellbrock said.
"It's rewarding to go do what we're trained to do," Captain McGee said. "It validates everything we've been trained for."