FORT BRAGG, N.C. –
Within hours, the commanding general of the Army Reserve needs reliable flights to see troops face-to-face, whether training through the summer months or responding to real-world missions during hurricane season.
With Hurricane Dorian approaching the Carolinas, U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers are staged at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, running a command post to direct Soldiers and equipment for disaster relief.
In order to get there and see their mission first-hand, Lt. Gen. Charles D. Luckey, Chief of Army Reserve and Commanding General, U.S. Army Reserve Command, flew in the form of “Army Airlines.”
The airline name is not official, but an inside joke among the crew of the “Winged Warriors” who operates a fleet of C-12 Huron airplanes, roughly the size of private jets.
“We make sure we do the Army mission, but we transport (senior leaders from) other services too: Navy, Air Force, Marines. We fly everyone,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dan Schoonmaker, who is the operations officer in charge of the company that flies senior military leaders out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The official unit name of the “Winged Warriors” is Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment, 244th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade, which falls under the Army Reserve Aviation Command.
Their mission goes beyond providing executive transportation for senior military officers. They also support other high priority needs, such as blood resupply runs to medical sites, fly sniper teams, and travel into disaster relief sites as needed.
Though made up mostly of Army Reserve officers who have civilian careers outside of the military, the company’s pilots remain flexible to the needs of senior commanders, often executing flight requests in less than 12 hours.
“The difference of this unit is our wartime mission: we’re doing it currently. We’re not training for it. Every mission is (our job) to go out and do,” said Schoonmaker.
Even if the company had to operate out of a foreign country, they would be able to perform the same mission because they accomplish it every day, he said. This allows senior military leaders to travel not just for morale of their troops, but to make informed decisions based on what they see on the ground, he said.
Most of the pilots live locally to Fort Bragg so they can respond to travel demands fast, juggling their military and civilian careers in the process.
Many of them come from a broad range of military and aviation experience. Schoonmaker used to be an air assault Black Hawk pilot. Chief Warrant Office 2 Brandon Harbaugh – also a former helicopter pilot – was an infantryman with two ground combat deployments and one aviation combat deployment, on top of being a former drill sergeant.
He left 18-plus years of active duty to become a commercial airline pilot and continues to serve in the Army Reserve by flying the C-12s from the Pope Army Airfield.
“I live and breathe the Army. I loved it ever since I came in … (The Army Reserve) allows me to still put on the uniform and be part of something bigger than myself, and still maintain a good work-home-life balance,” said Harbaugh.
The company rotates its various pilots on a schedule so that no matter when a mission hits, they always have someone on call to respond.
Harbaugh encourages others to pursue their dreams of becoming pilots in the Army, and not allow the major change in rank and career to scare them away. The switch did feel like starting over at first, but he now flies missions that support senior leaders in their strategic decision making.
“I have a three-year contract, but I’ll honestly fly until they don’t want me anymore … Coming from a guy with a high school education and 10 years as an infantryman: If I can do it, anybody can. You just gotta be willing to be coached and put in the time,” he said.