Right before take-off, the work of the Chief of Operations is done. The cargo has been checked, balanced and loaded. So, what are they thinking at that precise moment?
From the darkness of the hangar, I looked out across the runway to the Airbus A400M Atlas, squinting into the bright glare of the midday sun. The voices of the ground team and flight crew, once audible and animated, have long since fallen quiet, replaced by the increasingly impatient hum of four Europrop engines eager to get the mission underway.
At this point, there was no more for me and my team to do; our job was done. The cargo on board had been prepared and loaded exactly according to plan. There had been no hitches, meaning the A400M was on target for its scheduled departure window. All that was left for us to do was to slide the hangar door shut, shutting out the light and protecting us from the jet blast.
We reflected on a job well done, but, at the same time, my brain was whirring with thoughts, doubts and possible – but highly unlikely – scenarios that could unfold in front of us in the following moments. Because a situation like this involves the coming together of a huge number of parts, and the responsibility for making sure all that happens lies with my team and, ultimately, me.
As usual, planning for this mission started weeks ago. In the intervening period, items have arrived by truck and have been stored in the warehouse, enabling us to prepare the pallets in good time. We depend on smart software to guide the make-up of pallets and to designate where items will be loaded onto the aircraft, taking into account any special rules or restrictions associated with dangerous goods. The systems tracks each item throughout the process using barcode data so we know everything is present and in its correct place.
Now, just yards away, there is an aircraft laden with a mix of military cargo, all of different weights, shapes and types. We have to be confident that we have carried out all the appropriate checks and balances – in a very literal sense. There is no room for error.
In days gone by, the pressure of these situations was more intense. Weight and balance systems were just not as advanced as they are today and we relied a lot on experience and judgement, with more than a bit of trial and error involved. Any late changes to the aircraft load presented a problem, particularly if the items required segregation, or they were non-palletizable, or additional documentation was required.
Thankfully, we have moved on from those times now that we have the right technology in place. Today, we can simulate loading missions ahead of time, we can reconfigure pallets at the push of a button, and we can process an addendum within minutes. And if any manual intervention is advised or required, we also have the flexibility to accommodate those changes.
It has brought more efficiency, more structure and more accuracy to our procedures. It has also created a more calm and focused working environment, with far fewer high-stress moments when last-minute adjustments need to be made. Needless to say, we enjoy better relationships with the Load Masters and their teams.
Most importantly of all, having the right systems and procedures in place provides me with the necessary reassurance at moments like this, when my brain is testing me with question after question about whether the load has been thoroughly balanced and secured, and the aircraft is safe to fly.
Because that is the bottom line: whatever the flight and however complicated the cargo, every time I look out of the hangar at this point in the mission, deep down, I know we’ve made it.