The inaugural deployment of the C-130J Hercules to the Middle East by No. 37 Squadron ranks as one of the biggest tests faced by the unit on operations.
In August 2004, two aircraft and 43 personnel were rotated through a coalition air base in the Middle East for four months.
They replaced the No. 36 Squadron C-130H deployment that had been there since February 2003.
Even though the C-130J had been in service with No. 37 Squadron for five years, it was still regarded as a new and ‘untested’ capability on operations.
To the benefit of No. 37 Squadron, its predecessors had established close ties with adjacent United States Air Force C-130 squadrons, according to Flight Lieutenant (FLTLT) Geoff Sanders, who was a maintenance coordinator with the first C-130J rotation.
“This was the first true test of the unit’s ability to conduct C-130J maintenance in support of flying operations in a threat environment,” FLTLT Sanders said.
“For common spare parts and support equipment, [the Americans] were a godsend and were able to help us out if we ran low on anything.”
Relying on No. 37 Squadron were 500 Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel deployed throughout the Middle East Region, with efforts largely concentrated on Iraq at the time.
In Baghdad alone, this included an embassy security detachment, air traffic controllers at the airport and medical personnel.
Tasking typically required at least one aircraft every day, with some days requiring both aircraft online.
This necessitated a day and a night maintenance shift for No. 37 Squadron, with temperatures on the flightline exceeding 50 degrees Celsius.
What’s more, technicians were reliant on a 12,000-kilometre logistics pipeline back to Australia for some essential spare parts.
“The repair pipeline back to Australia was still in its infancy, and the return time for unserviceable part was about six months,” FLTLT Sanders said.
“Keeping our spares coming to meet the flying program was a full-time job and required careful forward planning by the entire team.”
When No. 37 Squadron introduced the C-130J in 1999, the aircraft was only intended to be a strategic airlifter.
In 2003, a single aircraft had supported No. 36 Squadron C-130Hs in the Middle East, but the crew lacked the systems and training to go ‘over the wire’ into Iraq.
The 2004 deployment had meant installing aircraft self-protection systems that were essential to defending against missile attacks.
This was essential for operations into Iraqi airfields, where an insurgency against coalition forces had re-ignited in 2004.
Despite ‘shakedown’ testing of the C-130J’s new self-protection systems in Australia prior to the deployment, their use in operational conditions tested No. 37 Squadron technicians’ ability to troubleshoot problems that arose.
“By far and away the hardest working team in the early days were our avionics technicians involved in loading and unloading aircraft with flares,” FLTLT Sanders said.
“Over the four-month rotation, this team required very careful management – they were required to work long hours across split shifts as they learned to deal with the idiosyncrasies of this new capability.
“They certainly did it tough.”
Flight Sergeant Matt Kean, an avionics technician with No. 37 Squadron during the deployment, said a relationship forged with a Royal Air Force C-130J detachment in Iraq helped greatly.
“The Brits were supportive beyond any expectations I had, and to this day, I’m forever grateful to them for a number of reasons,” Flight Sergeant (FSGT) Kean said.
“The first rotation for No. 37 Squadron was about forging new relationships, whereby our techos helped with a number of issues the Brits and Americans had with C-130Js.”
“We exchanged ideas and lent a hand to resolve each other’s issues, and found more efficient means to harness test equipment support in the region.”
The rotation concluded in December 2004, and the C-130J and C-130H workforces rotated airlift responsibility in the Middle East until July 2008.
Since then, No. 37 Squadron has maintained a continuous presence in theatre, rotating maintenance and aircrew to Australia’s main logistics base in the Middle East Region.
Over this time, airlift has also been provided on short-term deployments by No. 36 Squadron and the C-17A.
The continuity for No. 37 Squadron in the Middle East has allowed it to establish a stable logistics pipeline, and deployed technicians now have a dedicated maintenance hangar.
Maintenance challenges still arise, and members of the Rotation 41 Team – deployed over June to November 2017 – were awarded the Commander Joint Operations Gold Commendation for their efforts resolving a unique string of aircraft faults.
FSGT Kean said No. 37 Squadron’s success in theatre can be traced back to the dedication of those in the early days of the C-130J’s deployment.
“A significant portion of innovation and new relationships were as a result of ideas and effort put in by our most junior personnel, rather than relying on direction from the top,” FSGT Kean said.
“No. 37 Squadron’s success in the Middle East is because it was a frontrunner to innovation that changed the way we did business and how we operated the platform.”
Squadron Leader (SQNLDR) Matthew Grinham is the Senior Engineering Officer for No. 37 Squadron, but in 2004, he was the Maintenance Officer-in-Charge for that first rotation.
“The operational success the C-130J achieved in its inaugural Middle East rotation would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of the maintenance team,” SQNLDR Grinham said.
“These efforts have been replicated by successive rotations through to this day, with 48 rotations having been completed in total.”
“They have made an invaluable contribution to the evolution of the C-130J into the tactical medium air mobility platform it is today.”