The Air Education and Training Command's mission is to recruit, train and educate exceptional airmen. Ensuring airmen in the training pipeline make it to their next destination safely and on time is essential to maintaining the Air Force's readiness. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, transporting students from one location to the next has been challenging.
The 62nd Airlift Squadron at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, accepted the task of providing essential transportation to hundreds of students across the country in support of AETC's training pipeline.
"These students would ordinarily fly commercially to their training locations," said Air Force Maj. Nathan Eldredge, a C-130J Super Hercules instructor pilot with the 62nd Airlift Squadron. "Each individual student usually goes through a commercial airport to get to their next destination, which could potentially expose them to the novel coronavirus. By using our planes to fly the students, they are kept in a safe environment, and we can transport them and limit exposure to the virus."
Being there for every step of the student's transition allows for members of the 62nd Airlift Squadron to directly supervise and mitigate the student's exposure to COVID-19.
COVID-19 is not something that we can fight in the traditional sense, so us transporting the students is an innovative solution that allows our squadron members to contribute further to AETC's mission and keep the pipeline going.''
Air Force Maj. Nathan Eldredge, Instructor Pilot, 62nd Airlift Squadron
"We have more control over the number of people that the students come in contact with," said Air Force Lt. Col. Shane Saum, the director of operations for the 62nd Airlift Squadron. "By limiting the number of people they come in contact with, wearing masks, disinfecting the aircraft before and after the students fly in them, putting them in quarantine before and after they travel and having them checked out by doctors before they leave, we're able to control the variables better than if we were to send them through a commercial airline terminal."
AETC's student training pipeline involves flying students from one training program to the next. Without students flowing to their next assignment, a gap in the system could occur.
"The Air Force's readiness is dependent upon AETC’s students completing training," Saum said. "You only have a finite number of days in the year paired with a finite number of classes to push these airmen through. If these students don't get moved from point A to point B, they can't start the next phase of their training, which can cause a major clog in the pipeline."
While training combat-minded aircrew members is the 62nd Airlift Squadron's main mission, its members accepted the task of transporting the students in addition to their normal duties.
"These operations are considered emergency airlift under [Defense Department] guidance," Saum said. "We're going above and beyond what our standard mission is by not utilizing Air Mobility Command or Tanker Airlift Control Center, which are the ones who normally fly these kinds of missions. We’re still training students, but we're also helping further by getting other students where they need to go."
With the new 8.1 Block upgrade for the C-130J Super Hercules rolling out, the squadron saw an opportunity to use this mission as continuation training for instructor pilots — allowing the pilots to get hands-on training with the upgrade before they begin teaching it to their students.
"Our pilots are also gaining a regular proficiency, which is important now, more than ever," Saum said. "COVID-19 has decreased our operations quite a bit, even though we've maintained all of our student training. We have not become more than five days late for any student graduation."
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many challenges and has altered many processes across the Air Force. By transporting the students, the 62nd Airlift Squadron helped to create a new organic system which keeps operations going.
"It's rewarding," Eldredge said. "COVID-19 is not something that we can fight in the traditional sense, so us transporting the students is an innovative solution that allows our squadron members to contribute further to AETC's mission and keep the pipeline going."
(Air Force Airman 1st Class Jayden Ford is assigned to the 19th Airlift Wing.)