446 AW participates in airborne operation commemorating 20th anniversary of Operation Northern Delay

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Christopher Sommers
  • 446th Airlift Wing

Six minutes out. 

As a C-17 Globemaster III climbs to altitude over Italy, Chief Master Sgt. Derek Bryant, the senior loadmaster of the jump, gives the hand signal to the Army airborne jumpmasters, the expert paratroopers during the jump, who then passes it down the static line of paratroopers.

Get ready to jump.

As the aircraft banks left, then right, maneuvering into position before reaching the drop zone, the wind roaring like a crazed animal from the two open side doors, reminding each paratrooper onboard of what is about to happen, and they ready their parachute tether on the line.

Three minutes out. 

The lead paratrooper stands at the edge of the open door, checking its edge, concentration on their face, laser focused on what needs to happen next.

One minute out. 

All has been double, and triple checked. The aircraft is nearing the drop zone, each person inside it sharing the same level of intensity as they know the most dangerous part of the airdrop is about to commence.

30 seconds. 

Bryant signals for the last time. The indicator light turns from red to yellow. After what feels like a lifetime, the light finally turns green. 

In a flash, the last 21 paratroopers rush out the door one after another. The jumpmaster hurriedly managing their tethers as each jumper pours out of the aircraft. 

As the final airborne soldier departs the aircraft, jumpmasters and loadmasters hurry to pull the empty parachute lines back inside. Bryant and the other loadmaster close the side doors.

Airdrop complete.

Reserve Citizen Airmen aircrew from the 97th, 313th, and 728th Airlift Squadrons, including Chief Master Sgt. Derek Bryant, the loadmaster senior enlisted leader of the 728th AS, and Lt. Col. Mark Hahn, an aircraft commander and evaluator instructor pilot assigned to the 728th AS, alongside U.S. Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade participated in the commemoration airborne operation marking the 20th anniversary of Operation Northern Delay on March 22, 2023, at Aviano Air Base, Italy.

Operation Northern Delay occurred on March 26, 2003, six days after Operation Iraqi Freedom began. The C-17 aircrew dropped 1,000 paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade into northern Iraq. This marked the largest combat parachute operation conducted by the U.S. military since Operation Just Cause. 

“It’s the 20th anniversary of Operation Northern Delay, where we went in with 15 C-17s and dropped equipment and 1,000 soldiers from the 173rd Airborne into northern Iraq,” said Hahn. “Three out of the 15 planes involved were ours that flew during Operation Northern Delay, so it was a pretty big deal for our squadrons, and for the Air Force and the Army it was the largest airdrop in a long time.”

The operation was the first strategic brigade airdrop using the C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in formation, integrating a conventional Army airborne brigade within the 10th Special Forces Group, and integrating an armored battalion into an airborne operation. 

The wings that flew in Operation Northern Delay in 2003 were the 62nd Airlift Wing, 315th Airlift Wing, 437th Airlift Wing, and 446th Airlift Wing.

“I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into,” said Bryant. “But I knew it was going to be a big event.”

Bryant reflects on the intensity of the moments leading up to the mission on March 26, 2003.

“Briefings after briefings, you could see the seriousness in peoples faces, see that intensity that was building up to drop day,” said Bryant. “So it was pretty important that I was a part of this, that our squadron and the 446th was a part of this.”

Now looking back, Bryant is proud to have shared in the operation with all who were involved, and was grateful for the opportunity to meet those paratroopers who jumped with him 20 years ago.

“It means a lot to me to come back and meet some of those members who were on my drop,” said Bryant. “I was really looking forward to seeing if I had any jumpers today who were there 20 years ago, and I did and he was on the first drop we did today.”

The jumper that Bryant reunited with is 1st Sgt. Travis Stoddard, the current 1st Sgt. of senior enlisted members, of Bull Battery, 4th Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, the 173rd’s organic artillery unit. 

Stoddard made the combat jump as a forward observer for one of the infantry units. 

“We were rigged heavy that night. Once we stood up and hooked up, all I could think about was, ‘I’m ready to go. I’m ready to jump and get this gear off,”’ said Stoddard. 

Operation Northern Delay not only provided tactical support to the forces already in Iraq, but also demonstrated the abilities of one of the most valuable assets in the Air Force.

“It showcased the capability of the C-17, we did the airdrop and just as importantly we were doing engine running offloads the days after that,” said Bryant.

After 20 years, Bryant and Hahn once again joined forces with the 173th Airborne Brigade.

What was most important to Bryant and Hahn now being involved in this commemorative event was the perspective and trust they gained.

“The training that went into it that people don’t think about, who knew that all people involved would eventually lead to me doing a personnel drop in northern Iraq at that time,” said Bryant. “It meant a lot, the world, to me to have that trust in our Air Force. That young men and young women were out there on the line, it just showcases our willpower and our tenacity to let you know that the American force is always going to be there.”

(Information was taken from the 173rd Airborne Brigade story Operation Northern Delay: The 173rd Airborne commemorates the 20th anniversary of their last combat jump written by Maj. Robyn Haake