Believe it or not, the pelican and the C-5M SuperGalaxy cargo airplane have a lot in common: they’re both large, somewhat ungainly and they can carry a lot.
So it’s not surprising that the emblem of the 9th Airlift Squadron at Dover Air Force Base features the noble pelican carrying a half-dozen paratroopers in its beak. Although the emblem was born during World War II, it still is worn by the men and women of the 9th more than 70 years later as they deliver anything to any place necessary.
It’s a legacy every Proud Pelican shares, particularly squadron commander Lt. Col. Matthew “Matt” Husemann.
“When you look at our patch, with it comes a heritage,” Husemann said. “We don’t carry paratroopers any more, but we carry the cargo the paratroopers need.”
There’s a bit of friendly rivalry between the airmen of the 9th and their counterparts at the 3rd Airlift Squadron, which flies the newer but smaller C-17 Globemaster III. Both fall under the 436th Operations Group, which carries out Dover’s overall airlift mission.
“[The C-5] is larger, but we’re more of a strategic airplane in that we can fly farther and carry more but we need a little more ground support,” Husemann said. “[The C-17] carries less but they can get it closer to where it needs to be.”
The C-5 came into the Air Force inventory in 1969 and the fleet recently completed a program that gave it new engines, digital flight controls and other upgrades that should keep the SuperGalaxy flying until 2040.
Every mission brings together a crew of at least seven: a pilot and co-pilot, who are commissioned officers, and an enlisted team of two flight engineers and three loadmasters; the latter ensure the 135 tons of cargo the plane is capable of carrying is loaded aboard and properly balanced for each flight.
“They really work as a team, especially when they’re out on the road,” Husemann said. “We have a bunch of great guys; that’s why I love the C-5.”
• HISTORY Constituted as the 9th Transport Squadron on Jan. 1, 1938; served at Dover AFB from Jan. 1, 1965 to Sept. 8, 1968, and again from April 1, 1971 to the present time
• AWARDS 23 Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards (17 since 1971; Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm
• PERSONNEL ASSIGNED About 200 military and civilian
Salem, Oregon-native Tech. Sgt. Tom Patterson is a 15-year veteran flight engineer who has been at Dover for two years. Over the years Patterson has flown to just about every place imaginable.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child,” he said.
As a flight engineer, Patterson is responsible for monitoring every system aboard the C-5 and advising the pilot in case of an emergency. They’re volunteers who come from the ranks of the Air Force’s cadre of aircraft mechanics, their knowledge bolstered by ongoing technical and on-the-job training.
Patterson has flown missions into hostile parts of the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the most intense was in 2014 when Dover C-5s, flying out of Kuwait, spent 10 days flying equipment out of Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. In a round-the-clock operation, more than 25 million pounds of cargo, including armored fighting vehicles, were flown to bases outside the war zone, where they later were loaded onto ships and returned to the United States.
But other than being a part of the Air Force’s mission, Patterson has a much more personal reason for flying: he enjoys it.
“I just like being up there,” he said. “It’s always sunny when you’re up above the clouds. It just feels like something I was born to do.”
Flight engineers man a large black console directly behind the pilots. A myriad of dials, switches and digital readouts provide a one-stop display that allows them to monitor almost every critical system on the aircraft.
“We’re basically another set of eyes and ears for the pilots,” said Staff Sgt. Carl Avelino.
Being a flight engineer is the best thing about being in the Air Force, noted Staff Sgt. Brian Edwards.
“I’m doing this because I wanted to be more on the front end of the Air Force mission,” he said, adding, “I’ve seen a lot of Europe, parts of Africa and Asia, and a few sandy places, too.”
Flying a C-5 also means time away from family. Three aircrews from the 9th, along with their counterparts from a unit in California, spent last Christmas and New Year’s moving Army helicopters into and out of Afghanistan. While their loved ones were celebrating the holidays, a C-5 crew would fly into Bagram Air Base while another crew would make a return mission with the same aircraft. Another crew would come back to Bagram and the original crew would take the aircraft back again. Dover also sent along 20 aircraft maintenance specialists who, despite the long hours of use, kept the C-5s flying.
Although this mission lasted several weeks, most crews fly one to two missions a month, averaging between five and seven days away from home. The 9th has a fleet of 18 C-5Ms, which it shares with its U.S. Air Force Reserve counterparts in the 709th Airlift Squadron.
Like Dover, which this year is celebrating its 75th anniversary, the 9th AS held a similar milestone celebration in September. Several hundred current and former squadron members and their families gathered at the base to celebrate their heritage, proving, as Husemann said, once a Pelican, always a Pelican.
And despite recent cutbacks in the Air Force manning, the 9th has kept its ability to fly and to do whatever is needed to accomplish its mission, Husemann said.
“The mission is still there for us to meet – and we do it very well,” he said.