A Silverdale Air Force reservist was part of the largest U.S. air drop since World War II.

Chris Barron
Sun Staff

April 21, 2003

Looking out over the frozen midnight air in northern Iraq, Derek Bryant stuck his head out the back of a mighty Air Force C-17 Globemaster III.

With night-vision goggles strapped on his helmet, he looked out into the distance and down at the ground.

"I kind of hung out and took a whiff of Iraqi air," said the master sergeant from Silverdale, a 16-year Air Force reservist. "We were kind of looking out there to see what's going on and spot for those guys as well."

Those guys were 102 paratroopers from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, preparing for the biggest airdrop since World War II. The date was March 26 and the place Bashur Airfield, a must-have location for the United States to control in order to mount any sort of northern ground attack.

Bryant, 37, an 11-year Kitsap resident, is a C-17 loadmaster, in charge of all cargo and personnel being transported by the enormous jets.

A civil service employee at McChord Air Force Base just outside of Tacoma, Bryant was called up to active duty in mid-February. He performs basically the same job as a civilian as he does as a reservist. In the past three years, he's logged about 2,400 hours in a C-17.

The day he was informed of his activation, Bryant knew he would be a part of the massive 1,000-paratrooper air drop. Although he expected to be activated, he was surprised at the four-day notice.

"I went out to fly a local (mission) and I came back to the office and he said, 'You're leaving Saturday,' " Bryant recalled. "I said, 'Wait a minute, for what?' And he said, 'You're on the air drop crew.' "

His reserve unit, the 728th Airlift Squadron, was activated as a part of the 446th Airlift Wing, a 2,400-person unit at McChord that provides worldwide transportation of personnel and equipment. Reservists in the 446th fly about 25 percent of the more than 700 missions flown out of McChord each year.

Prior to arriving in Aviano Air Base in Italy a week before the historic air drop, Bryant's C-17 unit practiced for the air drop in Charleston, S.C. After moving to Frankfurt, Germany, they flew missions to Kuwait and other European bases to transport personnel and equipment.

A week before the drop date, the call came for the C-17s to head to Italy, the base of operation for the transport planes.

With high winds blowing through northern Iraq, the mission go-ahead wasn't given until 24 hours prior. Although most picture Iraq as a desert country, the northern region where the airfield was located had a light dusting of snow.

As the string of C-17s took off from Italy about 8 p.m., Air Force and Navy strike fighters led the way for the transport planes. The strike fighters bombed Iraqi troops and artillery to clear the way for defenseless C-17s.

"We were ready for everything," he said. "As an air crew member, we had our gear on, expecting to get shot down."

With Bryant's C-17 and all other aircraft entirely blacked out, the 30-minute call came from the pilots just before reaching the northern Iraq mountains. In just a half-hour's time, the air drop would begin.

Bryant, with night-vision goggles on, prepared the plane, completed the safety checks and finally opened the back door with 10 minutes remaining.

With one minute left and the inside combat lights turned on, Bryant looked outside to see if he could spot any ground fire, but only saw some far away -- and not aimed at the caravan of C-17s. Just then, the red jumper light came on, before turning amber and then green.

"Right then, you're in that zone to get those guys out," Bryant said. "I'm back there yelling, 'Go, go, go! Move, move, move!' "

With 51 soldiers attached to two cables, the air crew had 58 seconds to get the 102 paratroopers out of the plane. Being most soldiers' first time jumping in combat, some hesitated a bit as their turn came.

"I remember one kid stalling at the door, and another kid coming up behind him and kind of pushed him out because the line was flowing fast," Bryant said. "I saw the kid kind of roll along the platform. He didn't go off normal."

If the C-17s were taking on light fire, Bryant said they were told the air drop would continue. However, it would've been aborted if they were engaged with heavy ground fire.

Instead, the entire drop went as smoothly as planned. No paratroopers were lost and the heavy equipment, mostly Humvees, dropped intact, although many were stuck in heavy mud.

As the final paratroopers left the plane, Bryant got the 15-second call to pull in the straps and secure the door as the plane would quickly be leaving the region.

In the next few days, Bryant's C-17 went into Iraq twice more, this time landing at the secure airfield to unload personnel and about 80,000 pounds of equipment. Those missions, he said, felt even riskier than the air drop.

After the C-17 landed and stopped, the air crew had 10 to 20 minutes to unload the equipment before take-off. Even in the rush to unload everything, Bryant took a moment to gaze the scenery with his green-colored night vision.

"I got to looking around to see what was out there, and then you realize, 'I'm in Iraq,' " he said. "It's even more dangerous being on the ground. I prefer to keep on flying."

At his Silverdale home, Bryant pulled out an American flag that he said he'll eventually pass down to his 15-month-old son, Colby. He purchased it at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom and has taken with him on every mission he's flown.

On the night of the air drops, he hung the flag in the back of the plane.

"It was the first thing the troops saw coming on to the aircraft," Bryant said. "And during the air drop, we turned it around and hooked it up behind them so it would be the last thing they saw before they jumped out of the plane.

"That was pretty cool."

Air Force Reserve Master Sgt. Derek Bryant and two of his most valuable items -- his night-vision goggles and the American flag which he flew inside his C-17 aircraft. The flag has been with him in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Staff photo by Larry Steagall

Air Force Reserve Master Sgt. Derek Bryant and two of his most valuable items -- his night-vision goggles and the American flag which he flew inside his C-17 aircraft. The flag has been with him in Afghanistan and Iraq.