“Never miss a chance to hit the head, eat or sleep,” was sage advice I received from a navigator many years ago. As a young crew chief who could barely tie my shoes, this advice would prove paramount in the years to come as I grew up, traveled all over the globe, and eventually made my way into the flight engineer section as an enlisted flyer.
“That’s a time keeper thing,” said Lt. Col. Pat Baron, a navigator with the Wyoming Air National Guard’s 187th Airlift Squadron, who has been with 153rd Airlift Wing, home base for the squadron, for more 32 years.
C-130 Hercules navigators are indeed the keepers of time, expertly combining ingredients for a recipe of lethality and precision for tactical airlift. “You are a time keeper. You know what’s happened, what’s going to happen and you have to stay ahead of it,” Baron said when asked what role navigators play in the aircraft.
Navigators make the mission happen. There’s an incredible amount of planning and preparation that goes into a tactical mission to include route planning, computer air release points for air drops, winds and weather. Navs set the tone for the mission, giving the crew a sense of direction before they even step out to the airplane.
In addition to using GPS, complex navigational systems and computers, they are trained to use more abstract methods, like celestial and grid navigation. Celestial navigation is a dying art, barely kept alive by older generations of navigators. There’s only a handful of C-130 navigators in the entire force who are still able to find their way using the stars and Baron is one of them.
Navigators have the incredible ability to make split-second decisions in flight. A computer is only as good as its user and cannot combine the parameters of sound judgement and mission accomplishment in the same way a navigator can. They provide an element of safety, crew coordination and wisdom that a machine can’t.
Admittedly training missions tend to become routine and perhaps even redundant. However, during one flight, with Baron as the navigator, I learned something about navigators that I suppose I always knew, but took for granted.
The training profile had the C-130 dropping a heavy equipment training bundle after flying a tactical low level route west of Cheyenne. At this point, the pilot was flying a specific heading given to him by the navigator while maintaining airspeed and altitude within 5 knots and 50 feet. The co-pilot was calling drop zone controllers, coordinating range clearance and confirming the wind reported on the ground. Loadmasters were doing last minute checks on the cargo, preparing for its exit from the airplane. I, as the flight engineer, was running checklists, opening doors, and watching engine instruments while my eyes were glued to the airspeed indicator and radar altimeter. Meanwhile the navigator, Baron, had his eyes on the target.
All of the planning and preparation that was accomplished hours prior led up to that moment. The minimum requirement for a time on target is plus or minus 1 minute, but the navigator is always shooting for precision: plus or minus zero.
The flight plan, turn points and point of impact were all manually programmed by Baron into the aircraft’s Self Contained Navigation System at the beginning of the flight, but at the last second the winds changed. The controller at the drop zone gave the crew a wind reading that was 5 knots faster than was planned.
There was no time to go back into the computer and adjust the drop time so Baron waited. He waited until 5 seconds before the drop. Then he waited 3 more seconds and called, “Green light.” The load exited the airplane. At that very critical moment in flight, Baron was able to manipulate the sequence of events for maximum mission effectiveness. Traveling at 140 knots at 500 feet above ground level, the cargo landed within 75 yards of the target.
While pilots, engineers and loadmasters provide the muscle, navigators provide the brains on the aircrew. They offer direction and guidance on the ground and in the sky. On that day I learned despite the best efforts of everyone on the crew, ultimately the success of the mission began and ended with the planning and preparation of the navigator. They are the gear that turns the mechanism of the mighty Hercules. Without them we would be lost.