Fort Meade, MD --
At an Italian restaurant in Gabon, Africa, 5,900 miles from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, six American instructors and 14 students sit down for a meal that would soon foster a new relationship.
The menu is in French, but that’s not a problem. Some order lasagna, others pizza.
During the next three hours, the students and instructors talk, laugh and learn about each other’s families, interests and backgrounds. Discussing the classroom is discouraged.
When everyone is done, the students go home, but the instructors stay behind to talk about the night and its importance. Ten days ago, this event was just an idea.
Class started June 13 on a military air base in Libreville, Gabon. Instructors from the 818th Mobility Support Advisory Squadron brought what they needed from New Jersey. The Gabonese military students arrived around 8 a.m. for a two-week course that would give them the basics of C-130 aerial port and loadmaster operations.
“What we’re here doing right now is we’re delivering a curriculum based on load planning and air transportation of cargo; teaching them how to get their stuff ready to either fly on their own transport planes, or fly on partner nation transport planes,” said Capt. Phil Caraghiaur, mission commander, 818th MSAS.
The 571st MSAS from Travis Air Force Base, California, along with the 818th MSAS, belong to the 621st Contingency Response Wing, headquartered at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey.
“The program is about interoperability. It’s not like bringing students through basic training or bringing them through 7-level school,” said Senior Master Sgt. Mike Falcho, a C-130 Hercules loadmaster, instructor and superintendent of the 818th MSAS. “These people are already invested in their system, in their process. You need to build a partnership first to have these students invest in you.”
Collectively, the two squadrons are key components of the Air Force support for Department of Defense efforts to build partner capacity. By mentoring, advising and instructing partner nation air forces, squadron members help achieve the goal set by the secretary of defense — namely to enable partners to share “the costs and responsibilities of global leadership.”
The 571st MSAS supports U.S. Southern Command objectives in Central and South America while the 818th MSAS supports U.S. Africa Command.
“No one does one thing by themselves, and if you try to, more often than not, you’re going to fail,” Caraghiaur said. “On this global stage … we are all intertwined in such a way that at some point if you’re going to need to do something, you’re always going to ask for help from a neighbor.”
One student became an integral part of the class, not because he was the only one who spoke English, but because he trained with the U.S. Air Force in 2013.
“I spent one year to study first the language, and after that they sent me to the loadmaster qualification course,” said Gabonese Air Force Master Sgt. Idiatha Fitzgerald. “I flew, I got my diploma and now I am a C-130 loadmaster for the Gabon air force.
Falcho said he became close with Fitzgerald during his two weeks in Gabon.
“We called him Fitz,” he said. “I could tell how well he spoke English in the beginning and then we started talking about experiences and then to find out he was actually in Little Rock, (Arkansas), and in the unit I was at. That was very cool. Through talking we learned we knew similar people and it goes a long way for the training that we’re doing here”
As a U.S. Air Force trained loadmaster, Fitzgerald understood the importance of the training, and worked with the instructors daily to impart his knowledge on the other students.
“No country today would stand up and say we do things by ourselves and we don’t need another country,” Fitzgerald said. “Today we have to create a partnership because there are many bad thing(s) in the world. We have to work together. Having Americans come to our country and us to go to the U.S. is a very great benefit, so if one loadmaster from Gabon has to work with someone from another country, they know the same things.”
MSAS air advisors study the history, culture and languages of their partner nations — enhancing their ability to relate and communicate with partner nations’ airmen. Much of the instructor’s time in the country is focused on building relationships and fostering interoperability.
“We took our students out to dinner and it was absolutely phenomenal,” Caraghiaur said. “You really get a chance to change the dynamic when you get everyone out and put some food on the table and then we all basically eat as a family, and I particularly love these events because you get to hear everyone’s really intricate lives.
“When you’re in the classroom, your kind of in that classroom instructor mode, but then when you go out to dinner, you really are eating with friends and that’s when the stories about where they’re from, how many kids they have, what their lives have been like, what experiences that you shared, where they’ve been, where they traveled, and then you’re able to connect with these folks on a different level. I mean that’s when you really find that everyone is similar,” he continued.
One of the stories shared with a Gabonese captain was about officer and NCO development in the U.S. Air Force
“After talking a little bit it turns out their schools and their way of developing their officers and senior NCOs is similar to ours,” Caraghiaur said. “He was really surprised to see it, and that those systems work in parallel, and at the end of all that, it brought it back to a key theme: whether in the Gabonese military, the U.S. military, the Senegalese military, we’re all really just a big family.”
Falcho said that building relationships goes a long way, not just at the restaurant at night, but it goes a long way in the classroom and for the days to come afterward. It’s those relationships that they wouldn’t normally get being in a classroom all the time.
Most of the Gabon’s population speaks French, which can make it hard to build and foster relationships. During the training a linguist helps with communication, but MSAS members do have extensive language training before traveling to mitigate the language barrier.
“I am by no means fluent in French but I did have to go through training to get to a certain level that lets me build relationships with the Gabonese or whatever country,” Falcho said. “If you don’t have that language capability and you’re using an interpreter all the time, it almost becomes a hamstring to you. If you can just have normal conversations; how they are doing today, it goes a long way just as if they were in our country saying ‘hey, how are you doing,’ that means something to them just as it would mean something to us.”
The course started when the instructors introduced themselves in French.
“If you show up to a student that doesn’t speak English and you go up to him and say ‘Hi, my name is Mike and I am senior master sergeant,’ for one thing they’re not going to understand you and then you’re just going be looking for a translator,” Falcho said. “If you are able to go up to him and say ‘Bonjour, mon nom est Mike,’ they’re going to think, ‘Wow, this person really took the time to understand how to introduce himself,’ and it shows that you value them in their language, instead of just coming in speaking English. It goes a very long way. So it does start the moment you introduce yourself.”
The classroom was large and air conditioned, but had do-it-yourself wooden desks from the 1970s and peeling paint; it turned out to be an ideal setting for learning. “Bonjour, mon nom est,” was said by all six instructors during the two-hour introductions.
During the first week of class, students learned how to weigh and balance a pallet and a road vehicle, and how to find its center of balance.
Then the students trained by building a pallet and used a vehicle scale to apply the concepts that were covered during the classroom instruction.
The Gabonese Air Force has two C-130s, but they’re in Lisbon, Portugal, for maintenance, so their transport capability was limited.
“One good part of this training, that was very unique, is that not every country we go to in Africa has actual C-130 Hercules aircraft,” Falcho said.
Two U.S. Air Force C-130s were present on the flightline during the training course. The aircraft were participating in Central Accord 2016, an annual, combined, joint military exercise that brings together partner nations to practice and demonstrate proficiency in conducting peacekeeping operations.
The exercise gave the class an opportunity to tour the aircraft and get more than just a PowerPoint presentation.
During the second week of training, instructors built on the first week’s concepts. Using road vehicles, the students learned how to balance out an aircraft cargo load. Then they took that training from the first week and second week and the students learned how to plan out a load.
“Any time a plane flies it needs to be balanced, whether it’s Delta, Air France or if it’s a C-130 leaving out of Ramstein Air Base, Germany,” Falcho said. “Aerial porters and loadmasters figure out weight and balance. They need that capability here as well. If you don’t do weight and balance on an airplane, that’s a major safety issue, so it’s part of the training.”
The instructors played a video for the students during the second week of training. The video showed a Boeing 747 taking off from Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. The airplane took off balanced, but restraints broke on the mine-resistant, ambush-protective vehicles it was carrying. The aircraft’s center of balance shifted and the plane crashed onto the airfield. Seven people were killed.
“It’s an attention getter,” Falcho said. “It’s a big deal and it really sinks home to the students that they are the ones who plan the aircraft and they will have these responsibilities, and that video alone really gets their attention for the rest of the week.”
The MSAS program has four phases. The first phase is an assessment of the country’s military and assets, and if it has the capability to be interoperable.
“The second phase is teaching them how to do it,” Falcho said. “Then we select the best students and push them into phase three, and that’s basically a ‘train the trainer’ course.”
The students must get an 80 average on both tests to move on to the third phase of training. The day before the final test consisted of a 10-hour review session, with instructors going over the concepts they had taught the last four days.
Six students will move on to phase three. In phase four the country’s program is evaluated and inspected.
“It is very fulfilling to go on the road and watch the student go from zero to eight by the end of the week, in regards to knowing how to prepare for mobility operations,” Falcho said. “You actually get to see the result and the impact you’re making right in front of you. If you just stay in your room the whole time and you’re just totally focused on your curriculum and being an instructor and trying to deliver the curriculum to the student; you will fall short. You need to be invested into their culture because it’s the bridge to the relationship. Understanding the culture, without it you won’t be close to the students, and the students won’t start investing in a you as an instructor.”