MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. --
There was no beeping noise as the pickup truck laden with rocket parts backed up to the C-17 Globemaster III at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, in late August. It was just a Mongolian driver and a U.S. Air Force loadmaster using hand signals to communicate.
An Air Force Reserve crew from the 729th Airlift Squadron flew to Mongolia to retrieve debris from a Delta II rocket launch a year earlier. Retrieval was necessary under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Rescue and Return Treaty of 1968.
The 15-person crew included three pilots, four loadmasters, two aerial porters and, just to be safe, a six-person maintenance crew with a pallet of spare parts and equipment for the C-17 Globemaster III, retreived a second-stage fuel tank and two hydrogen sphere, then returned the debris to the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif.
Master Sgt. Lance Augustine, 729th AS loadmaster, said he wanted to fly this mission because it was something different. It would be the first time he had ever hauled satellite parts.
"Most cargo is already weighed, certified and secured on a pallet," Augustine said. "Here we only had a rough idea of what we were getting, so we had to use the skills we learned over the years to get the job done."
There was a lot of uncertainty about the mission, from the size and type of cargo, to the clearances needed to fly to Mongolia. The crew had to arrange for diplomatic clearances through South Korea and Mongolia before the trip, and encountered a communications challenge while in-flight over China.
"The radios were antiquated and air traffic control had unusual methods," said Capt. Averie Payton, the mission's aircraft commander. "They were not responding to our calls and the timing was suspicious during that one-to two-hour portion of the flight. We were concerned."
Landing in Mongolia was another challenge according to Payton.
"The (air traffic control) instrument procedure was very non-standard and it required intense study of the terrain and the approach," he said. "You are surrounded by mountains and on a two and a half percent slope. There is only one way in and one way out."
Payton said even with the reverse thrusters on, the jet was gaining speed. In spite of it all, the landing was smooth and without incident, thanks to the professionalism and training of the aircrew, he added.
Upon arrival at the only international airport in the country, the crew had their first look at the space debris they had traveled 5,500 miles to pick up.
The debris was already loaded into the back of a small pickup truck, a task that had been accomplished by hand since it wasn't palletized and there wasn't a forklift available.
"I was a little underwhelmed," said Payton. "It looked like half of a barbeque container and two metal balls, like buoys. I thought it would be more than what it was."
Appearing weathered, damaged and old, the largest of the three parts was the rocket booster, a 480-pound piece of rusty metal the size of a Smart Car, which had been flattened on one side from the impact.
Tech. Sgt. John Lowe, 50th Aerial Port Squadron, weighed and measured it along with two separate metallic balls, one the size of a large beach ball and the other a large exercise ball. With other crewmembers, Lowe discussed ideas on how to best get all of it loaded onto the C-17.
Lowe carried the two smaller pieces, 20 and 60 pounds, respectively, to the jet first where they were palletized by the crew.
Tech. Sgt. Ronald Dunn then directed the driver of the truck as the driver backed his vehicle up to the jet's ramp.
"Despite the language barrier, the driver picked up on my hand signals pretty quickly," said Dunn. "I think it went pretty smooth."
It took several of the crew members to lift the rocket booster out of the truck and onto the pallet on the jet. Once in place, the joint inspection team, responsible for supervising and inspecting the pallet buildup, secured it.
"We figured a chain gate would work fine," said Dunn. "It wobbled a bit, so we used dunnage underneath."
The first trip to Mongolia
This was the second time the Air Force Reserve visited Mongolia. On July 22, 1991, a C-141 Starlifter crew from the 730th AS, Norton AFB, Calif., delivered 20 tons of medical supplies to Mongolian citizens who were experiencing a severe shortage as a result of their first free elections and transition to a free market economy.
The mission was to uncharted territory, rather than to an established international airport. There was no American Embassy to assist with documents and interpreters.
With no forklifts or K-loaders, the aircrew worked with more than 100 Mongolian clinic volunteers who broke down the pallets and individually hoisted 500-pound boxes into dated, oversized, wooden-sided Russian pickup trucks they had backed up to the rear of the plane.
"Only one person spoke English," recalled Senior Master Sgt. Lonnie Kimball, 729th AS loadmaster.
Kimball said there were Russian helicopters and planes there and it looked like an old Russian air base turned into a civilian airport.
"From the air [Mongolia] looked like Montana with rolling hills and lots of grass," said Kimball. "We saw the great wall of China from the air. It was awesome because you could see it in the distance, as far as you could see, from both sides."
The crew Kimball flew with used photocopies of civilian airliner charts to guide them across the Chinese airways, since Defense Department charts covering the area were not yet available. They also had to convert their altitude measurements from feet to meters and their fuel measurements from pounds to liters.
When the aircraft refueled, the pilot paid the bill with some of the $20,000 in cash he carried from the U.S., because credit arrangements were not yet in place between the two countries.
During the mission 20 years later, pickup trucks, hand signals and volunteers were still the method used for loading and unloading U.S. military cargo planes there.
Tracking space debris
Nick Previsich retired from the 452nd Maintenance Squadron's Avionics section in June 2008 and is now the lead logistic manager for special assignment airlift missions at the Space and Missile Systems Center. He said the Air Force tracks all space debris to try to determine what will re-enter the atmosphere and where it will land.
"Our space debris lands on a recoverable area only two or three times a decade," the former Air Force reservist said. "Most of the earth is made up of water."
He said the last debris to come out of orbit ended up in a remote area of Antarctica and that Mongolia was the first recoverable location any debris had landed since he began his position in 2006.
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