APEX program provides flexibility, efficiency to super port

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Aaron J. Jenne
  • 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Air Mobility Command relies heavily on aerial ports, the central hubs through which all ground and air cargo flows. One of today’s most precious commodities is trained aerial port expediters capable of loading and offloading aircraft in lieu of loadmasters. The ability for aerial ports to plan ahead and load aircraft themselves bolsters these units’ flexibility and efficiency, especially during peak workload times.

Dover AFB is home to the 436th Aerial Port Squadron, which operates the largest aerial port in the Department of Defense. Often referred to as the super port, it is responsible for all freight to be delivered to the Middle East as well as any worldwide contingency operations and other special missions ordered by the Tanker Airlift Control Center, which directs military air freight movements.

Traditionally, loadmasters were solely responsible for loading and offloading aircraft cargo, said Michael Williams, 436th APS air freight operations manager. They would have to arrive hours before the flight to load the aircraft before each mission could disembark. As aircrew, these personnel are limited to a certain duty day before they must go on crew rest. Loadmasters arriving six hours before departure limited the amount of work the entire crew could perform.

To mitigate this effect, several measures were taken, which were a step in the right direction, but they were only somewhat effective, Williams continued.

“Before APEX, we had crews called duty loads, where loadmasters rotated through the port,” Williams said. “They loaded and offloaded aircraft as needed instead of flying with a specific mission. It did work, but it meant the installation’s airlift capabilities were diminished because these crews weren’t flying. It was really a half-measure. With APEX, we’re able to keep all the loadmasters operational and increase the airlift squadron’s capabilities to meet our nation’s mobility needs.”

The APEX program was directed by AMC under the velocity program implemented by the 436th APS on February 1, 2007, to help meet the loading demands of C-5 aircraft throughout the command. Through this initiative, experienced civilian and active duty aerial porters could go to school, to learn how to load and offload aircraft. A year later, the program expanded to include the C-17 Globemaster III.

Today’s training program is quite intense and selective, Williams said. After a year on a load team and six months as a crew chief, aerial porters can complete about 16 hours of web-based training. At the unit’s discretion, qualifying members can then go to the Air Force Expeditionary Center at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, to complete the two week training regimen. Upon completion, further on-the-job training continues. These newly trained APEX members operate under the supervision of an experienced APEX leader whenever possible. Each APEX member must recertify annually.

To date, 436th APS APEX members have on- and offloaded more than 237,000 tons of cargo on nearly 11,000 aircraft.

The real impact of the APEX teams becomes evident on a closer look at mobility operations, said Jim Ewing, 436th APS operations manager. The port often gets windows of peak aircraft operation when two or three aircraft need to take off within two to three hours of each other.

When only loadmasters can load the aircraft, it necessitates each aircraft to load at the same time. However, not all of the aircraft originate from Dover AFB, and these aircraft may also need cargo offloaded during the same window. This spreads aerial port resources and personnel thinly between each aircraft and it becomes challenging to meet deadlines.

The ability to load just one of the aircraft ahead of time with APEX members drastically improves Team Dover’s ability to meet departure deadlines, Ewing said.

“We have to allocate resources to be prepared to load that airplane on arrival,” Ewing said. “If I’ve got three of those missions working in three hours, and I have two of them already set up on k-loaders to go out on airplanes, that means I could get behind the power curve on the third mission. Now I go into the juggling act to manage my resources in order to meet the mission demands. If one of those planes is a Dover tail, I can send out my APEX crews in advance, so now I only have to worry about loading two of the three in that crucial window. Having these teams really improves our capabilities.”

As essential as these teams have become to effective aerial port operations, there have been some growing pains since Team Dover’s first APEX teams stood up, Williams added.

“The biggest issue we’ve seen has been due to communication,” Williams said. “We found that we were so intent on loading and offloading aircraft, sometimes the loadmasters were missing out on important training and certification requirements. Now we have quarterly cross-talks with load crews to iron out issues like this and see how we can continue improving the APEX program and our partnership with our loadmaster counterparts.”

Issues aside, APEX members have improved the squadron’s ability to do more with less in a profession that requires flexibility and accuracy. Team Dover’s program is a prime example of continued process improvement, both upon initial implementation and over the years as officials continue to improve training, usage and their partnership with loadmasters.

“The APEX program is a really great program that increases our flexibility and efficiency,” Williams said. “Our APEX members are amongst the most sought after when deployments drop, not only for their ability to load aircraft, but because the depth of knowledge and skills these Airmen have about the entire aerial port mission is evident in their position. Only the truly best become APEX members. I’m extremely proud of our teams here. I know they represent Team Dover excellence wherever they go.”