Peering through night-vision goggles in his blacked-out cockpit, Capt. Chad Smith grips the throttle of the C-17 Globemaster III, as the fully loaded transport plane makes a steep banking turn and skims over the mountains surrounding the US military airfield at Bagram, Afghanistan.
Despite gusty winds and a locked-up flight display, Captain Smith brings the plane in smoothly, in what he calls "one of the hardest landings I've done."
Yet Smith and his crew are only halfway through a 26-hour working "day" - one that has already included this combat landing, a delicate midair refueling over the Black Sea, and grappling with testy Georgian air-traffic controllers.
By the time the crew returns to its current base in Germany, it will have seen the sun set, rise, and set again. "Your circadian rhythm gets all messed up," says the copilot, 1st Lt. Ryan Theiss of Tampa, Fla.
While much attention has focused on how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are straining US ground forces, the extended days of pilots like these illustrate how the Air Force is also increasingly stretched thin. Already, for example, the Air Force's Air Mobility Command has moved 1.5 million troops and nearly 1 million tons of gear and supplies for the two wars, with no relief in sight. It's the third-largest movement of its kind since the Berlin airlift more than 50 years ago. Future plans to create a faster-moving "expeditionary" US military will only increase the demands for air transport, Air Force officials say.
Meanwhile, the Air Force is lengthening its overseas deployments. This month, it increased its standard 90-day deployment by 33 percent, raising to 120 days the time its 10 rotational units, called Air Expeditionary Forces, remain overseas. It also plans to expand aggressively the pool of deployable personnel beyond the current 270,000.
The Air Force is turning increasingly to contractors to move troops and supplies into combat zones. "Contract airlift ... is probably 10 percent [now], but I expect it will grow as we build up a contractor fleet and expand in theater," says Brig. Gen. Jim Hunt, commander of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing, which provides combat air power and airlift in Afghanistan.
The Air Force seeks to avoid increasing its total manpower, which is already 16,000 troops over the congressionally mandated limit of 359,000 for active duty. Instead, officials assert that by changing the mix of jobs they can shrink the force.
Meanwhile, crews are flying longer missions and have less ground time between flights. Many Air Reserve units, especially, are seeing an unprecedented rate and duration of deployment. "The operations tempo has significantly increased," says Lt. Col. Frank Taylor, who commands a group of the 315th Airlift Wing in Charleston, S.C. "We had to get the war over there, and now we have to sustain it." Reserve and National Guard members make up some 60 percent the 150,000-strong Air Mobility Command.
Maj. Matt Yaun, a reserve pilot under the 315th, spent 200 days on overseas missions last year and expects to serve a full two years on active duty. While committed to his job, he says that with only 12 hours notice before flights, his personal life is strained. "Just when you think you will make it to something important like a child's recital, you're gone," he says.
"It's kind of cumulative fatigue," adds fellow reservist Lt. Col. Wes Willoughby. He's eager to return to his 216-acre soybean farm in Smoaks, S.C., but fears he could face another two-year call up due to the war in Iraq.
The workload has increased for active-duty crews as well. New pilots like Lieutenant Theiss must now sign up for 10 years of service instead of eight, while they routinely spend double the time on overseas missions that they did before the Sept. 11 attacks.
"You used to have a lot more time off. Now, that has gone out the window," says Capt. William Friar, chatting with a reporter and the crew through his headset. "It's definitely a different lifestyle than was advertised."
To stay awake, the pilots drink coffee and tell stories, sometimes keeping alert by quizzing each other about the aircraft. They watch the sun set, and the moon rise orange and distorted on the horizon.
Long hours are punctuated by tense intervals, such as when they perform a precarious link-up with a KC-135 tanker to refuel over the Black Sea. Smith must steady the C-17 within just 40 feet of the tanker, as it extends a "boom" that connects above the cockpit and pumps fuel at a rate of 7,000 lbs. a minute.
"The controls are real heavy," says Smith, as the jet grows sluggish from the intake of fuel. "It's like driving a semi instead of a sports car."
"You're creeping," Theiss warns, as Smith inches the C-17 closer to the tanker.
Later, the pilots grow frustrated when a Georgian air-traffic controller, whom they can barely understand, refuses to let them climb higher than 29,000 feet, forcing them to fly less efficiently through thicker air.
Still, the pilots are buoyed by a sense of duty as well as some spectacular views, like a starry Afghan sky made more brilliant through night-vision goggles. "This is the best seat in the house," says Friar.