AS the summer afternoon temperature soars, a C-5 cargo plane sits with a full belly on the tarmac at Westover Air Force Base, its takeoff for Saudi Arabia delayed. Over by the base hangar, crew members of the 337th Military Airlift Squadron, an Air Force reserve unit, chat amiably about their coming mission, their families, and their civilian jobs.
``It really hasn't been too much unlike our normal training missions,'' says Maj. Fred Castle, a reservist instructor pilot who works for Digital Equipment Corporation in Maynard, Mass. The major has already piloted two missions to Saudi Arabia.
``It's just a massive airlift that's very well organized. It's just unbelievable the synchronization,'' the major says.
So far President Bush has called up more than 8,000 reservists for duty in the Desert Shield mission in the Gulf; that is only small percentage of the total reserves from the US Air Force, Navy, Army, Marines, and National Guard. The total call-up is expected to hit 40,000.
Reservists come from all walks of life. They can be doctors, lawyers, or dance instructors. Most serve one weekend a month and receive two weeks of training a year.
Crew members of the 337th Military Airlift Squadron were not surprised when the unit was activated last month. As the Middle East buildup intensified, many reservists were already prepared and some had volunteered for earlier missions.
Squadron member Larry Wells, a technical sergeant, heard the phone ringing upon his return from a vacation in California. He was told to report for active duty the following morning for a flight to Saudi Arabia.
``I put my flight suit in my bag, a couple of changes of clothes and I showed up,'' he says. Sergeant Wells works full time for the Air Force as a loadmaster instructor, responsible for training air-cargo handlers. His duties as a reservist are the same as his regular Air Force job at Westover.
For other reservists, the transition to active duty can be more difficult. Families become anxious and salaries are often substantially lower. According to Castle, who is a manager in Digital's business development office, some reservists are getting only 50 to 70 percent of their civilian salaries.
First Lt. William Rolocut, a reserve pilot, estimates he will get about a 30 percent salary drop from his regular Pan American pilot's job. ``I'm not happy about it,'' he says. But he adds, ``It would bother me more if I were married and had children.''
Nevertheless, reservists do not need to worry about losing their jobs. Federal law requires employers to either give a reservist back his old job or provide him with a similar job and salary when he returns.
The strain on families hasn't been too bad, say many reservists. Sometimes it becomes frustrating, however, because families cannot get in touch with crew members while they are away. ``I think [my family] is taking it fairly well,'' Castle says. ``[But] my young daughter does not like to see Daddy leave.''
All reservists here on active duty will be flying C-5 cargo planes, capable of carrying tanks and helicopters. These enormous planes stand as high as a six-story building. The C-5 cargo compartment itself is about the size of an eight-lane bowling alley.
Castle says the plane's size is not a problem. ``It is by far the best plane I have ever flown for something that is so huge. It handles beautifully,'' he says.
Pilots here aren't fazed by the day's delayed takeoff, which is due in part to a recent C-5 cargo plane crash in Ramstein, West Germany. Nine Air Force reservists were killed in the crash; none were from Westover. Although many of Westover's C-5s are 15 to 20 years old, crew members point to the plane's excellent safety record and note the last crash of a C-5 was 15 years ago.
Several crew members preparing for the day's mission recall trips to Saudi Arabia over the past few weeks. Loadmaster Maureen Gamlin, a dance and gymnastics instructor in civilian life, remembers opening the door of the plane to get her first look at Saudi Arabia. ``It's a little bit scary because you see [the soldiers] wearing chemical warfare masks.''
Staff Sergeant Gamlin isn't bothered by the fact that she's the only woman in the crew for this day's mission. ``I'm used to it,'' she says. ``[The men] are just like my brothers.''
For this day's journey, after taking off at Westover, the plane will stop off at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. There it will load up and continue on to Madrid where the crew will stay for only a 10-hour ``crew rest.'' The plane, however, will continue on to Saudi Arabia with a fresh crew already waiting in Madrid. The original crew will then board the next Saudi Arabia-bound plane to complete the journey.
When Sergeant Wells landed in Saudi Arabia once before, he stayed for only three hours. ``You unload, refuel, and leave,'' he says. Allowing for stopovers, most C-5 cargo missions from Westover take about one week to 10 days.
John Miller, a flight engineer, works for the Hartford Insurance Company as a claims adjuster. ``This is what we train for,'' he says as he hurries to gather his gear together. ``It gives us a chance to serve in our country. I know it sounds patriotic, but that's what we're here for.''