2021 Super Squadron: 336 Sq Blackbulls
For the last couple of years 336 Squadron “Blackbulls” of the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) has undergone a true transition from a regular transport squadron to its main new task, tactical operations with its Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules. Frank Visser and Ludo Mennes spoke with the new commander about his plans in further developing this unique squadron.
Activated in September 1961, 336 Squadron was equipped with six Dakota aircraft and involved in supporting the Dutch armed forces during the New Guinea conflict with Indonesia. Just a year later it was deactivated for the first time. It took almost 19 years (August 1, 1981) to be re-activated on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao at Hato airbase operating two Fokker F-27 Maritime aircraft. Here the squadron was responsible for performing SAR missions, surveillance against smugglers, oil pollution control and transporting soldiers of the Dutch Marines Corps permanently based at the island. Although being both useful and successful the squadron again was de-activated due to political decisions in 1999 and both aircraft were phased out and sold. Early C-130 operations started at 334 Squadron and in 1994 this squadron received two C-130H-30 extended Hercules aircraft. When the Dutch government decided in 2005 to double the amount of Hercules transport capacity, 336 Squadron was activated for the third time on October 23, 2007 at its present station, Eindhoven airbase in the South of Holland. The squadron received the two C-130H-30 Hercules from its sister squadron, 334 Squadron, and two extra C-130Hs were bought in 2007 from the US Navy and revised by Marshall Aerospace in Cambridge, UK. Actually over a period of seven years all four aircraft received an extensive update certifying them to civil standards and making the aircraft globally deployable.
The switch for 336 Squadron from flying strategic airlift to tactical airlift started years ago and gained a boost with the start of the Transport Weapons Instructor Course (TWIC) in 2017. This course was developed by 336 Squadron in cooperation with the F-16 community, which flies the Fighter Weapons Instructor Course. After two editions in 2017 and 2019 it has already delivered five C-130 weapons instructors to the squadron. One of those weapons instructors is Capt. Joost. Due to security reasons only surnames of crewmembers are mentioned. Capt. Joost is flight commander on the C-130H: "Tactical flying involves a multitude of different missions, such as parachute droppings at high and low altitudes, cargo dropping and CSAR (Combat Search and Rescue). In all cases it has to do with directly supporting our partners in a deployment area, for example the Special Forces." Although it is not officially the task of 336 Squadron, they have included CSAR missions in the TWIC program and we practiced CSAR missions in 2019. 336 Squadron can perform these kinds of missions, but their
C-130Hs are not really suitable for this task. For example certain sensor platforms, such as a Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) are not used by the RNLAF C-130Hs. This also applies to specific communication systems such as TacSat, which American C-130s are equipped with. They can communicate anywhere in the world with headquarters and military forces on the ground. Co-pilot First Lt. Miquel has recently completed his Mission Qualification Training (MQT): "Strategic airlift is relatively simple because you fly from point A to B.
In tactical airlift you really have to work together as a team and planning and preparing for a flight takes more time. You have to take into account many aspects, such as the threat in the area of operations and weather conditions." During the planning phase, everyone meets informally and the task of the mission is analyzed. Members of intell are also present and they outline the different threat levels. The mission commander conducts his briefing and then delegates the further planning to his crewmembers. They then proceed in planning the mission in detail. For example, the co-pilot works closely with the mission planners and is responsible for the maps, the Combat Airdrop Planning System (CAPS), intell and frequencies.
Lt. Mike is a flight engineer and the third man in the cockpit: "When preparing a tactical flight I am mainly concerned with the pre-flight checks of the weapon systems." He is also responsible for the proper loading of the crypto and he checks whether the self-protection system and all other systems are working properly. In addition, a flight engineer has an important role in the implementation of a tactical airlift, when landing on a short airstrip or a dirt strip. He plans the landing and how much cargo can be carried. For this, he performs the necessary calculations, taking into account the length of the airstrip, the amount of cargo, the fuel balance and the total weight of the C-130. These aspects are all learned during the MQT, which takes an average of two to three months. A C-130H crew also contains two loadmasters. Sergeant Major Jan is a C-130 loadmaster: "As loadmasters we also learn the aspects of tactical operation during our MQT and we have mastered the loading of pallets to be dropped." Because loadmasters do not have their own simulator, they learn their skills during MQT flights. Capt. Joost: "During the planning process, we meet regularly, which eventually leads to a mass briefing, where all aspects come together." The flight engineer and the loadmasters then coordinate the final details with the pilots. Sometimes planning with others is not possible. Therefor the option of dislocated planning is possible. For example, to coordinate the planning with units on another airbases or units already present in area.
Capt. Joost: "We now fly a multi-mission C-130H "Hercules" and I hope to perform tactical airdrops during our deployment in Mali, next year. Every crewmember has an important task to successfully complete a tactical mission and what is expected from him." He continues: "We have become very mature in performing tactical airlift. It is not easy to drop a pallet and the communication between pilot and loadmaster is very important. But we have become very good in executing this task."
When LtCol. Maurice "Skunk" Schonk assumed command on September 2, 2020, being one of the most experienced F-16 pilots within the RNLAF, he did not have a clear view of 336 Squadron. With more than 4.000 hours of flight time on the F-16, multiple deployments and above all a four years long supervisor position at the EPAF Weaponsschool, LtCol. Maurice "Skunk" Schonk has brought in extensive tactical and instructional experience to further develop 336 Squadron next level in becoming a tactical airlift squadron. LtCol. Maurice "Skunk" Schonk: "I know things really started in 2017 with the first TWIC. If you offer tactical airlift, you have to keep your promise, therefore keeping everyone on board is essential”. Upon entering, he first looked at where the squadron was positioned in reaching its goal of becoming a tactical airlift squadron and then set realistic ambitions. "I had a clear view of the pilots and their experience, but not of the flight engineers and loadmasters, and certainly not of the maintainers and support staff,” said LtCol. Maurice "Skunk" Schonk. This is important because the squadron will soon grow into a squadron that not only performs operations, but also has its own maintenance and support, such as mission planning and intell. The members of 336 Squadron know which challenges lay ahead, but not everyone is on the same track yet.
LtCol. Maurice "Skunk" Schonk continues: "This needs time. In the past former fixed wing or rotary wing pilots entered this squadron, however nowadays many pilots join the squadron directly after completing their training in the USA, the so called ‘ab initio pilots’. My aim is to convince everyone that 336 Squadron can deliver tactical airlift anywhere in the world under different threat level and they cannot ignore us." By this he means being relevant and so the right mindset of all squadron members is important. He also experienced this kind of transition during his days flying the F-16. At first only air defense against the Warschaupact was practiced and it was only after the Midlife Update (MLU) of the Dutch F-16s by the end of the 90's that a completely different package of systems allowed them to fly many other types of missions. LtCol. Maurice "Skunk" Schonk: "Because I have gone through that cycle I can guide 336 Squadron and learn from the past." In the past candidate pilots went through their training at Sheppard AFB and their instructors made a definitive choice on which aircraft they would fly in the future. Thus, the best of class became fighter pilots and the rest went to air transport or helicopters. Today the situation of selecting pilots for a certain type of aircraft has changed and candidates are selected for an aircraft they are the most suitable. LtCol. Maurice "Skunk" Schonk: "Pilots must have the right competence-set, such as being a team player in the cockpit. And because pilots now enter directly from pilot training, you can train and shape them and benefit from them for at least ten years. I am therefore having a preference for young recruits. "This does not mean that horizontal influx is not possible, but they must bring an extra value to his squadron.
In 2021 the squadron will further refine its processes and continue on growing from a squadron into a ‘super squadron’. A squadron that can operate completely independently with its own maintenance, mission planning, intell and staff in one squadron, which is unique within RNLAF. LtCol. Maurice "Skunk" Schonk: "If processes are clear, you will be able to create a very strong team, where everyone knows what is expected. This also means that you put people in other positions, so that their competences are better reflected within the squadron." With the term ‘super squadron’ you put the squadron on the map. Because the C-130H is a specific and old platform the training of pilots, flight engineers and loadmasters mainly takes place within the squadron. This affects the availability of aircraft for flight operations. It means being available for 24/7 and also continuously train personnel. In recent months the availability of personnel has grown steadily to an acceptable level in operations. For maintenance, the staffing is almost completely filled. COVID-19 brought a malaise to civil aviation and so it was possible to retrieve a number of pilots to return to 336 Squadron. These pilots will be mainly responsible in working out the necessary processes and planning with their experience and eventually in time will start flying again.
The RNLAF has operated the C-130Hs for over 25 years. Although the aircraft have received an extensive update, they are used intensively and replacing them is inevitable. When the replacement enters service the conversion training can also be outsourced again. LtCol. Maurice "Skunk" Schonk: "With outsourcing I am going to keep so much more manpower, flight hours and simulator hours available in the Netherlands, so I can use my training hours more robustly. The aim is to have the conversion training for the new aircraft type run abroad for a part of the current aircrew, who will support the First Aircraft Arrival. Then a second badge of airmen follows, which runs the same conversion and after they return to Eindhoven I have a complete squadron. The three to four pilots that I need every year can follow their IQT abroad and this part of the training I want to outsource as well. Unlike now, I no longer have to take up my capacity within the squadron and that immediately will yield around 500 flight hours, including deployable personnel", according to LtCol. Maurice "Skunk" Schonk. The replacement of the current aircraft was originally planned for 2031-2033, but has recently been brought to 2026. An obvious one is the Lockheed Martin C-130J "Super Hercules". In addition, the Embraer C-390 "Millennium" is also a possible candidate. The Airbus A400M does not seem to be a real contender, because the aircraft is less maneuverable and the gap between this aircraft and the C-390 and C-130J is too large. The final choice is expected around April 2021.
It is important that the RNLAF and other staffs recognize our tactical operations capability. That's also the reason why LtCol. Maurice "Skunk" was asked for the role of commanding 336 Squadron. With his knowledge he is the most suitable to continue the path of this predecessor Col. Jorrit "Winnie" De Gruijter, who developed the blueprint for tactical airlift. Since 2014 the 336 Squadron has had a strategic partnership with the 11th Air Maneuver Brigade (AMB). This brigade consists of the helicopters of the Defense Helicopter Command (DHC) and the 11th Air Assault Brigade of the Royal Netherlands Army. "In addition the focus on training with international assets is also important, because in the event of a conflict we must be able to operate with all coalition armed forces. Therefor a ‘Mountain Bull’ exercise is planned for 2022 and a year later 336 Squadron would like to participate in the Artic Challenge exercise. For 2021 the Orange Bull exercise and a TWIC are on the agenda and from mid-November 2021 336 Squadron will be deployed for United Nations duties in Mali, which will last until mid-May 2022. For this, all four C-130Hs will receive an upgrade of their self-protection system. The Portuguese will replace the Dutch for six months, after which the squadron goes for a second term of six months. The extended C-130H-30 version is preferred for this deployment in order to be able to take along a Force Protection team and extra spare parts.
LtCol. Maurice "Skunk" Schonk concludes the interview: "We are such a specific platform and therefore need specific training. We have a busy schedule ahead of us, but it is a clear path in becoming an even more complete and better tactical airlift unit. We are a relatively small unit, but one thing is clear to me. We are highly trained and our personnel certainly matter. A super team of which I am very proud of."