A C-130J on the ramp at Ramstein AB, Germany.  Two days ago, maintenance crews inspecting a C-130 that had just returned from Africa found the body of an African boy in one of the plane’s wheel wells.  Discovery of the stowaway has touched off a major security investigation (U.S. Air Force photo via Air Force Times)   

It’s a routine that plays out every day at C-130 bases around the world.  The aircraft lands; aerial port specialists unload the cargo, the aircrew turns the “Herk” over to maintenance personnel before heading off for a debrief and something cold to drink.  The maintainers then settle in for a check of the airlifter and fixing whatever the crew broke during their last mission. 

That’s how the post-flight drill began this past Sunday at Ramstein AB, Germany, home to the Air Force’s 86th Airlift Wing.  But the maintenance check quickly became a criminal investigation when crew chiefs found the body of a male adolescent in a compartment above the C-130’s “rear” landing gear, according to ABC News.

You don’t need to be a former Herk crew member or maintainer to spot the obvious mistake in that one; C-103s have a nose gear and two main gear.  What’s worse, that description came from Rear Admiral John Kirby, the spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  We’re guessing that Admiral Kirby’s only experience with Herks has been as a passenger, so we’ll give him a pass.  Suffice it say that the young man climbed into one of the main gear wheel wells, then died after the plane became airborne, either from hypoxia and exposure, or being crushed by the retracted gear. 

Admiral Kirby offered his condolences to the adolescent’s family, casting it as a tragedy.  Naturally, he didn’t want to dwell on the security aspects of the stowaway episode, which has produced a lot of red faces in airlift circles and it ought to prompt a few firings, at various points along the C-130s journey. 

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We’ll begin in Mali, a reported stopover point for the Germany-based airlifter.  Most Americans know Mali as a desperately-poor country in northwest Africa, but the nation is also home to Al Qaida-linked insurgents who also have ties to Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria.  Air Force transports have been flying in and out of Mali for the past 18 months, in support of French forces who have been battling the insurgents. 

Last week, Fox News reported the 3,000 French troops in the country were being “repositioned,” to better deal with the threat.  Given France’s long-time dependency on American airlift support (and the itinerary of the C-130), it’s quite possible the aircraft and crew might have been used to ferry personnel and supplies to French military positions in Mali.  The transport plane also stopped in Senegal, Chad, Tunisia, and Italy before landing at Ramstein.  Mali was the second stop (after Senegal) on the crew’s eight-day deployment. 

At this point, military officials aren’t sure where the young man climbed into the wheel well.  The crew did not report any landing gear problems during their trip to Africa and the body could not be seen during a “quick” inspection of the gear and wheel well.  A test on the corpse for communicable diseases proved negative. 

Admiral Kirby (correctly) noted that C-130s are designed to operate from austere locations where security won’t be “at the same level” as a main base like Ramstein. 

But that doesn’t absolve the crew–and other military personnel–from basic security responsibilities.  Ultimately, it’s up to the aircraft commander to ensure that unwanted cargo (and personnel) don’t get on the aircraft. 

And sometimes, that’s easier said than done.  A C-130 mission like the one that ended at Ramstein is often very busy, with multiple stops at various locations.  Lots of issues to worry about, ranging from diplomatic clearances and limited ATC services, to scheduling changes and, of course, security for the aircraft and crew.

It’s worth noting that the Herk with the stowaway was a “J” model, the latest version off the Lockheed line.  The C-130J has vastly updated technology over previous versions, with improved engines; distinctive scimitar props and a digital cockpit.  With more automated features, the airlift version of the J can operate with a smaller crew: two pilots and a loadmaster, compared to the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer and two loadmasters found on earlier models. 

While the newest Herk is a technical marvel, more than a few pilots have complained about the reduced manning, since there is still plenty of work to go around, and two fewer bodies for tasks like pre-flighting (which can be done by the engineer), or updating flight plans (which can be handled by the nav).  That means the pilots have less time for their other tasks, such as aircraft walk-around inspections before flight.

However, security of the aircraft is not left entirely to the cockpit crew.  For a mission into Africa or other hotspots, the flight crew is often complemented by one or two maintenance personnel and a small contingent of Phoenix Raven security specialists.  The “Ravens” (as they’re known) provide an “acceptable level of close-in security” for airlifters at locations where there is a known threat, or additional protection may be warranted.  In some instances, Ravens stay with the aircraft during overnight stops. 

Predictably, the Air Force won’t say if any Ravens were a part of the C-130 crew that stopped in Mali.  But, given the threat in that part of the world, it’s hard to imagine a Herk deploying without additional security.  Phoenix Raven has often been cited as a “model” security program, but among flight crews, opinions about the security specialists are mixed.  We found this 2010 blog posting by a C-130H flight engineer with experience in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan: 

“…The Ravens are diva extraordinaries. They slept every leg, the entire way and ate everything in sight. We had four on board and only two had to spend the night on board one time. At Comores we had a national attempt to get on the aircraft and it was the interpreter with the spec ops guy that stopped him by yelling at him. Then one of the Ravens comes over and guards the door. ARE you SHITTING me? That’s why you see us unarmed in the pictures. Our 9’s are locked in the gunbox because we have the fire breathing Ravens!!!!! The consensus amongst the crew is we should arm up and leave these boys home.”


“Seriously, when you fly in the combat zone everyday, you have body armor, your packin’ heat. There is no protection except what you bring. You go down and it’s all up to you. It would be the scene from Pearl Harbor where they crashed in China and had to defend themselves. I could see a movie in the future. It would have a scene where a 130 went down and the crew was defending the aircraft and a Raven would climb out of the wreckage looking half asleep with a chocolate brownie from an MRE in his mouth.”

Bottom line: the stowaway discovered on that C-130 at Ramstein represents a serious security breach.  Heads should roll over this one, beginning with those directly responsible for protecting the aircraft.  And whoever thought it was a good idea to leak this information to the press needs to be disciplined as well.  Various terrorist factions across Africa have discovered just how easy it was to slip on board an American transport aircraft at remote airfields.  Next time that hidden passenger might be a bomb, not an African boy.

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