Special Assignment: Mystery in the Sky

November 13, 2006

They're here almost every day of the week, training just overhead.

They're flying over our neighborhoods, schools and shopping centers.

Tonight, in a News 12 Special Assignment, you'll see who's behind this mystery in the sky.

They are hard to miss.

The enormous V-130 is the military's workhorse, hauling everything from beans to bullets to our troops fighting overseas.

"It's the workhorse of the Air Force," Maj. Rob Light told News 12. "Probably the best aircraft ever built."

But this is no war zone...this is Augusta.

Air Force crews are flying here to practice dropping things out of the planes. What they learn here in Fort Gordon's drop zone will save American lives in the war zone.

Maj. Light and Capt. Lance Avery are part of the ground crew out of Dobbins Air Force Base in Atlanta. They're here to make sure the training goes according to schedule.

Once they set up the target, all the air crew has to do is calculate the air speed, adjust for wind conditions, and then push out the load at just the right moment.

They train with sandbags, but they can drop just about anything.

"It's a sandbag or it's a 3500 pound concrete block, or a Humvee or a tank," said Maj. Light. "It's all the same for the guys flying the airplane. It's just different for the guys throwing it out the back."

And once they tossed out the load and cleared the drop zone, they headed for Bush Field, practicing maneuvers that let them to get in and out of enemy airspace quickly.

"We escape away from the enemy, then set up for an approach back to friendly territory," Maj. Light said.

Turns out Augusta is friendly territory for the Air Force. The crew from Dobbins comes here the most, but they're not alone.

Not by a long shot.

Maybe you've seen a big, white, unmarked Boeing 757 in the sky. It's from Andrews Air Force Base.

And Shaw Air Force base in Sumter sends F-16's into airspace southwest of Augusta. They use a training area known as the Bulldog MOA, or Military Operations Area, between Augusta and Waynesboro.

But it's the massive C-130's flying here from Atlanta you'll see the most.

"It really helps us to get away from Atlanta--get a low level environment over here, not so restrictive," Maj. Light said.

The Air Force may love it here...but is it safe for the rest of us?

"Now the guys we're training always have 'adult supervision', as we call it. They may be a 23-year-old second lieutenant right out of pilot training...but there's a 38-year-old major instructor pilot in the other seat, hands available if they need to. But these guys are good."

So, how good are these guys at what they do? This should make you feel a little better.

We watched as one plane made its run at over 145 miles an hour. The sandbag landed just about ten feet from the big orange target--very close!

Capt. Avery's crew is the only one ever to actually hit the target.

And remember, those sandbags represent the food or equipment our troops on the ground need to accomplish their mission.

"We're supporting them," Maj. Light said. "That's why we're training: to support the Army guys on the ground."

Here's a little more information about how they try to avoid the areas where most of us work and live.

The crew from Dobbins will fly over Fort Gordon, do the maneuver at Bush Field, and then swing wide around the city, making the turn to do it all over again north of Augusta up around the lake.

They take their training very seriously, and they were happy for us to take away some of the mystery of what they're doing overhead.

Some of you may have noticed they were flying around Augusta again today. It was for the same drill...and they practice here at night too, because in the war zone, they'll make most of their drops at night.