NIAMEY, Niger – It’s almost midnight. A 23-year-old American Soldier navigates the red and white lights blinking down on the flight line. He approaches the plane’s tailgate and makes a beeline to his French counterpart. She nods at his arrival and reaches for her clipboard.
The soldiers have their ears wrapped in headphones for protection. The noise from the C-130 engines muffle communication already challenged by a French-and-English language barrier. They rely on hand and arm signals and occasional head nods for affirmation. Their citizenship is only detectable by the tiny flags worn on their shoulders. The soldiers unwittingly demonstrate a seamless alliance while transferring French cargo and troops on board U.S. aircraft.
“Fifty-six pax and three pallets,” the French soldier yells, indicating that 56 French soldiers and three pallets of cargo will board the U.S. aircraft. “I reckon that’s about 12,000 pounds.”
U.S. Army Pvt. 1st Class Lane Earls, a transportation management coordinator assigned to the 384th Movement Control Team, jots down the numbers and feeds them to the flight crew. He emails the numbers to his higher headquarters, U.S. Army Africa, in Italy. The information is consolidated and reported to the countries’ highest military officials. This simple act gives French and U.S. officials an opportunity to strategically plan movement and operations in one of the world’s most vicarious environments, Africa’s Sahel.
Earls’ task to track U.S. allies’ equipment and personnel could possibly be overlooked in large-scale exercises, but it’s important. False information can result in an overweight plane crash. A miscommunication could cause an international incident.
“It feels like I’m doing my part,” Earls said. “Not only for the (U.S.) Army but for the French army. I help them get home safe to their families.”
The U.S. military flies French personnel and cargo from a small air base in Niger to any number of outposts in west and central Africa, all in support of France’s Operation Barkhane. Operation Barkhane consists of 3,500 French soldiers deployed across the Sahel to support host countries’ fight against violent extremism.
Every three months, the U.S. military surges support for Operation Barkhane, as French forces conduct a ‘relief in place.’ A relief in place occurs when a military deploys fresh troops in exchange for redeploying service members back to home station while simultaneously maintaining operations.
“I’d like to thank the U.S. for making this mission possible,” said Sgt. Katherine, a French army soldier and paratrooper jump instructor, currently serving a second role for Operation Barkhane as a transportation coordinator. “The U.S. is flexible with our big French contingent. We can afford to put a little more freight or more passengers with little advanced warning.”
Katherine can be found where the C-130’s tailgate meets the tarmac. Every day, she helps track, load and unload various types of cargo from a jet engine to dogs to a convertible HMMWV. She assists French soldiers as they march inside the C-130, take their seats and attempt to fasten their foreign seatbelt.
“The (French service members) are out in the middle of nowhere, so I have great respect for how they’re running their mission out here,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. John Huberty, a loadmaster assigned to the 37th Airlift Squadron. “I’ve been to some of the more forward operating bases that they have and they’re pretty sparse when it comes to amenities.”
Huberty is part of a flight crew team including of pilots, security forces and aircraft mechanics. He’s responsible for configuring the C-130 for any type of load introduced by the French.
“The French are very organized,” Huberty said. “They do know what they want moved and they know where it is going.”