By MS. LAUREN SCHATZ, STAFF WRITER
The recipe for an exceptional story often calls for “a dark and stormy night.” The tale behind how an enormous C-5M Super Galaxy rolled off its chocks in the middle of the night on December 14, 2022, is no different.
The story takes place at Naval Station Rota, Spain, where the 725th Air Mobility Squadron (AMS) supports strategic, theater, and contract Air Mobility Command (AMC) aircraft transiting the base.
Lt Col Michael Slaughter, Commander of the 725 AMS, recounts the incident that unfolded that night on the base.
It was a fairly busy time, with many aircraft and Mobility Airmen along the flightline. Weather conditions had been relatively calm the evening before, but in the early morning hours—around 0200—the wind started picking up, climbing to roughly 30 knots with a light mist.
The weather conditions limited some of the routine work on aircraft at the base, but most operations were able to continue. There was not much cause for alarm, as these conditions were common in Spain for the time of year. In fact, Spain had recently seen significant rain due to a system called Storm Efrain hitting the Iberian Peninsula, so the light mist was practically nothing in comparison.
However, within about 5 minutes, the wind rapidly accelerated—it was later estimated to have gone above 70 knots. With the wind, extremely heavy rain came, causing near blackout conditions. Airmen who had been working on a C-17 Globemaster III took shelter inside, shielding themselves from the violent weather until it subsided a few minutes later, departing almost as quickly as it arrived.
The Airmen quickly sprang into action to orient themselves to the situation. Following a quick reaction checklist, the command post notified Slaughter of the severe wind event—and that a C-5 was rumored to be in a ditch. He knew he needed to quickly get to the bottom of what happened. The next steps were to assess exactly what had occurred on this dark and stormy night—and how bad the aftermath would be.
“Three aircraft were visibly affected in the immediate area the storm hit,” Slaughter said.
These aircraft were two C-5s and a C-17. The first C-5 was the one that rolled off its chocks. Thankfully, it did not end up in a ditch, as had been speculated. Instead, it rolled roughly 2 yards to the edge of the ramp—just a short distance from the ditch. If it had gone into the ditch, the situation could have been catastrophic, according to Slaughter.
Unfortunately, the other C-5 sustained damage to its rudder. The C-17, on the other hand, was merely rotated slightly; it did not sustain any damage.
Although many of the aircraft appeared unscathed, Slaughter took no chances in ensuring they were safe to fly.
“It was a week straight of intensive checks,” Slaughter said. These checks involved consulting engineers. “We conducted detailed evaluations of every aircraft on the base during the event to ensure there was no sustained damage from wind.”
Beyond the aircraft, the base sustained light damage. This damage was mostly to unsecured structures directly in the path of the storm system; however, numerous trees around the base were also blown over. Although the Airmen directed a great deal of effort toward checks and cleanup on the base, everyone was thankful no injuries were reported.
But what exactly hit that night? Slaughter, along with Navy leadership, consulted weather experts.
Slaughter worked with the 21st Operational Weather Squadron to analyze what may have occurred. The conclusion? A waterspout had crept onto land, shifting into a tornado and tearing through the base and the Rota community.
Tornados that come at night are often not identified as such, because it can be difficult for people to spot them and provide eyewitness accounts. However, storm ratings assigned afterward are based on damage. Thus, the damage was analyzed for more details about the suspected tornado. According to the well-known Fujita–Pearson scale, this alleged tornado would be classified as an F1. According to another well-known scale, the Beaufort Wind Scale, the storm had hurricane-like winds.
Slaughter emphasized that, although this storm may not have caused as significant a level of destruction as it could have, it did bring up important lessons.
“Weather, in some ways, is similar to the enemy,” Slaughter ruminated. “You don’t get a vote in what the enemy is going to do.” Thus, he is a proponent for fine tuning reactions: prevention can only go so far, but preparing for how to react best can make the biggest difference.
“Our team knew how to react immediately,” he said. “They regularly conduct exercises to test their ability to do quick action checklists and to test their ability to think on their feet.”
He emphasized the importance of a quick reaction checklist. Although this list cannot be used without superb critical thinking skills, it equips Airmen with concrete guidance to follow when tensions are high and details can easily be skipped.
Another important lesson involving chaotic scenarios is that it is important to assess the situation fully and recognize how miscommunication plays a role. The C-5 was reportedly in a ditch—but it had moved only a few yards. Finding the balance between quick action and careful analysis is important; recognizing the chance for miscommunication is also important.
Finetuning reactions plays a role in creating Multi-Capable Airmen. The maintainers who jumped in and performed contingency response duties showcased this concept during the storm; these Airmen executed tasks outside their regular roles, which is exactly what the situation needed.
Whether for weather events or to combat the enemy, training greatly helps support the future fight.
The 725 AMS is a key component of the 521st Air Mobility Operations Wing (AMOW), Ramstein Air Base, Germany. The 725 AMS provides premier maintenance, command and control, and aerial port support to the joint warfighter through compliance, expertise, innovation, and professionalism to ensure the safe, efficient, and effective projection of Rapid Global Mobility. This role supports the 521 AMOW’s mission of “Agile, Resilient, & Reliable Air Mobility Operations . . . Always.”
Capt Emma Quirk, who works in public affairs for the 521 AMOW, praised the invaluable work and support of Slaughter and the entire 725 AMS.
“They reacted instantly when it happened,” Quirk said, adding, “They have always excelled at helping AMC get aircraft off the ground.”
Having joined the Air Force in 2005, Slaughter is a career C-130 navigator who started flying at Dyess AFB, TX, before moving on to Little Rock AFB, AR. After seven years in the C-130 he went from the flightdeck to the flightline where he spent two years at the 621st Contingency Response Wing (CRW) at Travis AFB learning various functions of the GAMSS (Global Air Mobility Support System)—or, as he puts it, “all the different aspects of the Air Mobility world.”
After another few years at the Pentagon, Slaughter moved on to an assignment in Rota, Spain, where he was an esteemed commander for almost two years. In May 2023, he moved on to AMC Headquarters at Scott AFB, IL, to further his impact and leadership as the Director of AMC’s Commander’s Action Group.
Slaughter concludes: “A perfect world would be safe and allow us to plan. However, that’s not reality. We must do everything we can to be prepared; Airmen must be capable and trained to react in an intelligent way. We must train on how to react.”