Stepping over the rows of legs, the Loadmaster did his best interpretation of air-to-air refuelling with his hands and shouted: “20 MINUTES.”
Flight Lieutenant Margie Bell hadn’t been on an air-to-air refuelling flight before, but didn’t expect to see anything from the red canvas seat inside the Hercules’ cargo bay. A KC-30A from Darwin would rendezvous with them over the Banda Sea, and autonomously connect its boom with a receptacle above their cockpit. Ordinarily, the trip to Ho Chi Minh City could be made without interruption, but with the Hercules carrying a full payload, they needed the top-up.
Everyone in the joint task force (JTF) had been warned about refuelling turbulence, so Margie kept an airsickness bag within easy reach. She wasn’t sure it would be necessary, but it didn’t hurt to be prepared. The one thing she had been assured was the Hercules’ satellite communication link would be down during the refuel. For half an hour, Margie – and her fellow JTF members – would have no correspondence with home.
Perched on her lap was a screen with a dozen chat windows and browser tabs for her deployment. One linked her with other JTF members, and another with the Movements Cell in Australia. An open browser tab showed the aftermath of Typhoon Horace, which had wrought destruction across the Philippines before flooding the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and Cambodia
A new message appeared. Long flight?
It was Gabby, one of Margie’s best friends since the Academy. Posted to the Industry Liaison Cell at the Air Mobility Control Centre, Gabby was probably finishing up for the day.
Margie stretched her limbs against the pallet in front of her. The Hercules carried stores that would turn a hangar at Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City into a deployed headquarters for the JTF, at least until the Vietnamese Government determined where their help was needed most.
Wish we were there already! Looks like VN govt still assessing impact.
Gabby replied: ASA’s has an update for Vietnam btw. Uploading to your JTF server.
That was interesting, and for a minute, Margie was annoyed she was running on old information. Airport Services AI routine – or ASA – kept a running log of all available facilities, equipment, and infrastructure at major airports. The JTF members on the Hercules immediately noticed Gabby’s updated ASA file when it landed in their server, and Margie’s first action was a request to her AI assistant routine: Find changes to latest ASA report for Tan Son Nhat.
All ASA reports had a track-changes function, but experience had taught her a second set of eyes – or program code – was worthwhile to crosscheck.
The AI finished the request in seconds. All changes annotated in new report.
Margie nodded and scanned through the updates. After reading the ‘Servicing and Handling Equipment’ tab, her eyes narrowed and she read it again. Subconsciously, Margie’s hand scratched her scalp, and she opened another AI routine.
ALF – she’d long forgotten what the acronym meant – was responsible for generating and managing Defence and contracted airlift tasks. Opening the JTF’s tasks, it showed listings for three Royal Australian Ariforce (RAAF) C-17As and a civilian-chartered Boeing 777. Margie opened the load plan for the C-17As and typed a message to Gabby.
Problem. Battery-charge generators coming on C17A #3 but are needed ASAP.
Gabby’s response took a few moments. ALF generated the tasks using ASA’s Tan Son Nhat data. Why not use local BCGs???
Checking the timestamps on the ASA report and the ALF mission plans, Margie felt a combination of vindication and anxiety. AI routines proved ruthlessly efficient and thorough, but their problem-solving ability was still being ‘learned’. The ALF’s load plans were built around a months-old ASA report, and the updated ASA copy – staring Margie in the face – confirmed Tan Son Nhat used a fleet of CMC Battery-Charge Generators for servicing local ground handling equipment.
Only weeks earlier, the Defence Cyber Directorate flagged CMC’s latest software update as a malware risk. The generators were essential in the operation of everything from autonomous loaders and cargo handling equipment to ground power units. All were now off limits to Australian Defence Force aircraft.
Margie added her AI assistant to the chat window with Gabby, and feverishly typed. Send Gabby DCD audit of CMC last month, flagging malware risk. Link to BCG availability at Tan Son Nhat. Recommend we load BCGs on first C17A.
The request was actioned immediately, but the repercussions were about to play out dramatically in Australia. Grabbing the Loadmaster’s attention, Margie scrawled a note on her airsickness bag. HOW SOON UNTIL REFUEL?
The Loadmaster read the note and splayed his fingers. FIVE MINUTES.
Margie swore, and opened up the JTF chat window. This was going to be touch-and-go.
If I wanted to work on a boat, Corporal Adam Trzecinski thought, I’d have joined the Navy. Still, he was excited for what lay ahead that afternoon.
There was no way Ski could have predicted events of the past week. Short-notice deployed to the Philippines, his Drop Zone Party had worked with a RAAF Spartan squadron before he was given orders to get on an LHD. Within a day, Ski was flown by MRH90 to the Adelaide as it sailed past.
Once on board, it was clear why the DZ Party was needed. As the ship sailed past the Philippines it had unloaded tonnes of humanitarian stores, and now en route to Vietnam, a resupply was essential.
“Ever used this before in anger, Ski?”
A Navy Lieutenant – Mullins, Ski recalled – sidled up alongside the DZ Party at the base of the Adelaide’s island.
“How long was the Shoalwater DZ?”
“Give or take three kays.”
“$50 says this goes in the water,” Mullins wagered.
The C-17A appeared from behind a cloud like a migratory seabird, trailing an extraction parachute. A rectangular load fell from its ramp before settling under a large parachute canopy and floating aimlessly. It was kilometres away.
Mullins folded his arms. “Want to up the bet to $100?”
“I’ll take that action, Sir.”
Steering lazily through the sky, the load’s computer brain sent impulses to motors that controlled risers on the parachute. The GPS signal in the South China Sea was not to be trusted, so the Adelaide transmitted its location, along with windspeed and directional data from the ship’s deck. With 5,000 feet of altitude left to run, the load lined up behind the Adelaide.
Recognising the geometry of the LHD’s stern, the load’s computer brain made course corrections that kept a ‘cone of impact’ focused on a vacant parking position. Now on final approach, the load deployed a pair of fans that spooled up to power.
Lieutenant Mullins was now agape. “That’s unreal…”
Those standing on the deck could see the load clearly now. It was a five-metre-long box with a tapered nose, fitted with a rudimentary landing gear. Ski could hear the wind rippling over the parachute canopy, and it shimmied unsteadily as it passed through wake turbulence created by the island superstructure. The fans’ pitch increased, and the load flared for landing slightly to the left of the aim point.
No sooner was contact made did Ski’s DZ party run forward to secure the load. Within minutes, the parachute was stowed, the load transferred to the hangar deck, and two tonnes of medical supplies were unloaded.
Ski returned to his post next to the Adelaide’s island, directing Lieutenant Mullins attention to the reappearance of the C-17A.
“Three more to go, Sir. Double or nothing on the next one?”
“The host nation is doing the heavy lifting – we’re just here to help.”
A line of trucks heading the opposite direction made for an impressive enough spectacle for the cameraman to record from the window of the sedan. From the driver’s seat, Colonel Grace Tu hadn’t considered it was an apt illustration of the recovery efforts until now.
The journalist noted the company names on the trucks. “What’s been the most surprising thing for you as the JTF Commander?”
“A lot of the big ticket infrastructure – bridges, jetties, and so on – all survived the rains. It was the connecting roads that got washed away. Most of the loads coming in now are plant equipment or other enablers, and half of my job is getting them out where they’re needed.”
“What’s the other half of the job?”
“Economic recovery. The Mekong accounts for more than 20 per cent of Vietnamese GDP, so there’s a lot riding on the people we’re helping to get back to work.”
“And industry can’t manage that?”
“They’re helping to manage,” Tu replied. “Those trucks we just passed are all carrying goods to and from the flooded areas, but we’re helping the Vietnamese to keep the traffic moving.”
The sedan pulled up to an airport perimeter gate, and Tu displayed her ID to the security detail.
“They’re with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation,” Tu explained, handing them a sheet. “They have a letter of approval from the Airport Authority.”
Tu continued speaking with the ABC crew. “Our operations cell built a traffic plan, pulling in detail from satellite, UAVs, vehicle tracking and traffic apps. Some of those sources need to be declassified before we can hand it to the Vietnamese Government.”
The security detail waved them onto the flightline, which was a display of contrasts. Bulldozers levelled aircraft shelters built 70 years ago during the War, making way for billets to hold autonomous delivery vehicles that would operate across Ho Chi Minh City. As they pulled up in front of the JTF’s hangar, a C-17A taxied past the hulk of an Antonov freighter obstructing the taxiway.
“War relic?” the journalist asked.
“Would you believe it broke down a week ago?” Tu said, tossing a safety vest to the cameraman. “The Antonov there is an NGO charter. A good portion of the outsized-cargo market is tied up in Soviet-era aircraft that have been flown to death. That’s who our C-17 is covering for now.”
“I once rode in to South Sudan on an Ilyushin, so I know what you mean,” the journalist remarked.
From inside the hangar, a Warrant Officer walked out, flagging down the JTF Commander.
“Ma’am, we just had a call from the rotary-wing. They can take you out in 25 minutes.”
The ABC journalist called over his cameraman. “Do you mind if we do an interview and live-cross in the meantime?”
The Warrant Officer motioned them aside. “Sorry Sir – not right here. There’s a C-17A about to park right where you’re standing.”
Tu motioned the ABC crew over to the hangar.
“Thank God for Warrant Officers,” Tu said.
About the author: Eamon Hamilton is a Public Affairs Officer (PAO), working as a Public Servant with Air Mobility Group at RAAF Base Richmond, northwest of Sydney. He is also a member of the RAAF Specialist Reserve, working as a Flight Lieutenant PAO with No. 28 Squadron when required. Outside of work, Eamon enjoys aviation, along with the James Bond films and Star Wars universe. He can probably discuss all of the above with you on Twitter via @eamonhamilton.