Look before you leap: drop zone coordinators guide airlift
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- C-130 Hercules occasionally pass over Yokota air field to pepper the sky with parachutes. When those chutes carry people, a team of dedicated and alert airlifters will have been working from engine start to cutoff, ensuring that every boot reaches the ground safely. One of those team members on the ground is the drop zone coordinator.
Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Johnis, 374th Operational Support Squadron NCO in charge of Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape operations, is trained for dropping into remote or hostile locations to perform search and rescue. When Johnis jumps, a DZCO has his back to help make sure winds are manageable, skies are clear and the landing area is safe. Until the moment he leaves the aircraft, if the ground wind changes, another aircraft interferes, an obstruction enters the drop zone or anything else detectable from the ground compromises his safety, Johnis' "eyes on the ground" will let him know.
The three pivotal players who work together to make a personnel drop happen are the DZCO, the aircraft commander and the jump master. The DZCO clears the drop zone and relays important information to the AC, who is the senior pilot. The AC flies and relays information to the jump master, who tells personnel when and where jump. Courtesy of the DZCO, the jumpers should have a clear path to the bright orange landing target that he placed for them.
Yokota conducts regular jump training because all related personnel need to practice their roll in a drop to stay qualified and achieve proficiency. The Marines and Airmen who train at Yokota, such as the Guardian Angels and the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, may be called on to conduct reconnaissance or perform search and rescue.
At Yokota, the only personnel qualified to perform DZCO duties are pilots and navigators. One of those pilots is 2nd Lt. Bobby Thomas Jr., 36th Airlift Squadron C-130 Hercules navigator, who explained that the experience air crew gain from operating aircraft gives them a better understanding of how to handle the all-important drop zone.
Thomas said that whether on the ground or flying the plane, he enjoys his role in air drop, yet he also feels the responsibility of the jumpers' safety.
"Of course I feel excited the entire time they're coming down but I'm also tense," Thomas said. "Like today when I saw Ben come down, I didn't breathe that sigh of relief until boots hit the ground. At the same time I felt the success and the excitement of the mission. I had a hand in that."
The skill and experience of the airlift team help make sure boots keep touching down safely.
Thomas reported that he has never seen a major incident happen during a personnel drop at Yokota. Having to throw his truck into gear to dodge a wind-drifting sandbag is perhaps the most danger he has experienced. Thomas' alertness keeps him on top of all variables. Whether it's a glitch in communication equipment, a change in weather or a grass-cutting tractor wandering into the drop zone, the DZCO must know how to respond and protect the lives in his hands so that those lives can protect others. That's how one player in the team at Yokota makes the mission carry on.