They descended on Nellis Air Force Base in a single-file formation Tuesday: Three waves of C-17 Globemaster cargo jets followed by 14 turboprop C-130s.
The first trio of C-17s set the pattern as they lumbered toward the base at 11:20 a.m., then circled northward to make their final approach before landing softly on the concrete runway like giant dragonflies on one big lily pad.
Their arrival marked the first time such an assembly of cargo planes, 29 in all from nine Air Force bases in the United States and Japan, converged on Nellis for an air combat exercise. The training effort was focused on pilots and crews honing their skills to safely deliver paratroopers, trucks, cannons and supplies to a war zone, base officials said.
In some ways, the exercise was a re-enactment of the March 2003 airdrop of the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade during the invasion in northern Iraq, said Lt. Col. Dan Daniels, of the C-17s’ 57th Weapons Squadron out of McGuire Air Force Base, N.J.
“This is the same thing,” he shouted over the thunderous hum of dozens of propellers as the last of the C-130s parked on the flight line behind him.
Capt. Jaron Roux, the C-17 mission commander for the exercise, said his group flew over the sprawling Nellis range to drop simulated boxes of equipment and supplies such as howitzers, Humvees food and water.
“The C-130s followed with the paratroopers,” said Roux, of Charleston, S.C., who flew a C-17 from McChord Air Force Base, Wash. with its green tail stripe depicting the image of snow-capped Mount Rainier.
The goal of the exercise, he said, was to demonstrate how cargo aircraft can insert combat-ready Army troops and equipment into the front lines.
Two C-17s and two C-130s also landed on a dirt airstrip in a remote part of the range.
“There were no big mistakes,” Roux said. “We were able to achieve our objectives.”
Lt. Col. Jeff Brown, of the 29th Weapons Squadron from Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., said his C-130s dropped “training loads” or sandbags to represent 64 paratroopers per plane.
“We’re going to go inside and for the next three hours reconstruct the mission as a group,” he said.
He noted that data from radar and global positioning instruments will determine the accuracy of their delivery attempts.
The exercise included mock enemy elements portrayed by four aggressor fighter jets “and guys on the ground shooting at us with smoking SAMs,” or surface-to-air missiles.
“Just as we were coming off the DZ (drop zone) we got shot at,” Brown said.
The attacks were simulations. No live munitions were involved.
“It’s the best training the Air Force can give to the guys on the top of their level,” he said.
The commanders said the planes landing Tuesday at Nellis capped an intense planning effort by Maj. Erin Staine-Pyne and Capt. Joe Vanoni.
“They worked at this for five months and they’re already starting on the next one,” Daniels said.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or (702) 383-0308.