MCCHORD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. & When then-Capt. Joe Lodrige walked into his commander’s office, he probably didn’t think he’d be asked to learn from scratch how to airdrop cargo in just a few months’ time in order to compete in the Military Air Transport Service’s first Rodeo airlift competition.
The air transport C-124 pilot was tasked to assemble the finest aircrew members from the 1502nd Air Transport Wing at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, to form and lead two aircrew teams to compete in the April 1962 event.
In a short period of time, Captain Lodrige recruited a team of two airdrop-experienced navigators along with more than 20 other aircrew and maintenance Airmen.
His recruitment paid off when his 1502nd ATW was named the “best of the best” at the inaugural active duty Rodeo in 1962. The Continental Air Command, the Reserve command predecessor, hosted its first Rodeo in 1956.
More than 40 years later, the 1962 Rodeo winner returned to the competition at McChord AFB, Wash., to see how the competition and the Air Force have evolved.
“I always wanted to visit Rodeo and see how they’re doing these things now,” said retired Major Lodrige, a 20-year veteran who served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Major Lodrige and Lila, his wife of 32 years, are taking part in the Air Mobility Command’s Rodeo 2007 by participating in an Airlift Tanker Association event, a reception for AMC and Air Force Reserve Command Purple Heart recipients, and today’s closing ceremony. The Lodriges hope to leave the AMC 60th Anniversary event with an understanding of how airdrops are conducted in the new millennium.
While the overall changes in the Air Force’s aircraft, procedures, and culture since 1962 are numerous, the purpose of Rodeo remains the same.
“The benefits of our Rodeo were to test accuracy and ways of doing things, and to try to find better ways of doing things,” Major Lodrige said.
Proving that competition sparks initiative is a Rodeo tradition that the major and his peers helped create with their Military Airlift Transportation Service Rodeo. For Major Lodrige, taking initiative meant using the talents of his airdrop-seasoned navigators to devise a new system to more accurately accomplish the mission.
At that time, aircrews had limited tools to precisely airdrop cargo to its target on the ground. The 1502nd ATW’s navigators explained the system to the major by saying, “We just stand between the seats and kind of eyeball it.”
According to Major Lodrige, this was considered standard practice for airdrop operations. Even without any prior airdrop experience, he knew that this process could be refined by removing some of the guesswork. The only instrument on the C-124 that could aid with this was the drift meter, a tubular device with crosshairs on it located in the cargo bay of the aircraft that gave a view of the land directly below the plane.
Going against traditional procedures, the team positioned their navigator in their bay to determine the angle of the target from the heading of the aircraft. Using this knowledge of the drift and the speed of the aircraft, the crew could rather accurately determine the wind, which in flyer terms means the direction the aircraft would need to be from the target on the drop zone.
“The team developed a procedure that was superior – it provided more accuracy and consequently emitted a more consistent delivery of the cargo at a designated target,” the 78-year-old veteran said.
While the crew worked diligently for weeks to refine the theory of their new airdrop process, they practiced only one short period of time at Travis AFB, Calif. because there was no local drop zone.
“When we won, everybody figured we were just lucky,” Major Lodrige said. But he and his crew knew that careful precision planning and innovation were the leading contributors to their victory. He also credited the exceptional talent of his team.
“They were all professional MATS crew members,” he said. “I just picked them because they were good people.”
In fact, one pilot went on to fly Air Force One for President Gerald Ford, while Major Lodrige later flew for Louisiana Governor John McKeithen. In 1990, the major finally retired from commercial flying with about 25,000 flight hours under his belt.
Forty-five years later, Major Lodrige remains connected to his early Air Force career by being involved with the Air Force Navigators and Observers Association, and the Air Rescue Association.
He recently found his Rodeo 1962 navigator by looking for him on the internet. The two hope to meet up in the near future to reminisce about their winning team, and their contribution to the heritage of Rodeo.