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When 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alta., members and materials are on the move, there’s a team working behind the scenes to get them where they’re going.
The Air Movements Section at the Medley air terminal is home to 10 traffic technicians–military experts in packaging, loading and shipping everything the Canadian Armed Forces needs moved by land, sea or air.
In addition, Cold Lake’s Material Distribution Centre employs three more traffic techs.
“You’re the subject matter expert on a lot of things,” said Sgt Jessica Grant, second-in-command of the movements section at Medley terminal.
Every exercise or deployment going to or from Cold Lake depends on the traffic techs to move people, supplies and equipment by air or by road. Whether it’s a local exercise like Maple Flag or a deployed exercise like Cougar South, squadrons need to know that their personnel and their gear will arrive on time and in good shape.
The traffic techs make sure that happens.
“You’re expected to know about movements and load planning and that kind of stuff,” said Grant. “It’s interesting what we expect from our people.”
It begins in basic trades training. Qualification Level 3 (QL3) personnel learn about material handling equipment, packaging techniques, and creating a load plan for a specially-qualified aircraft loadmaster’s approval.
Further trades training qualifies a QL5 traffic tech as an expert in moving all kinds of cargo.
And the loadmaster specialty, an aircrew position, requires even more expertise. Loadmasters are traffic techs who are trained to manage loads on CC-177 Globemaster, CC-150 Polaris, CC-130 Hercules or CH-147 Chinook aircraft.
Traffic techs often work out of sight of other operations at 4 Wing. This is partly because the movements section is in an out-of-the-way location at Medley terminal. It is also because they do most of their job either before a main body of troops deploys, or after they have returned home.
“No one ever knows what we do,” said Grant, “and that’s fine. We are kind of forgotten about over here. We just get our job done and take care of what we need to. When you show up, it’s all there.”
“I’ve been told a lot of times in my career, ‘I always wondered who you guys were, I’ve always wondered what trade that is, it looks so cool,’ ” she added. “Our trade is probably about 50 per cent remusters. A lot of people don’t know what it is until they’re already in the forces, and then they’re like ‘oh, you’re not a trucker’ or ‘oh, you’re not a supply tech.’ No, we do our own thing,” she said.
In January 2018, the traffic techs prepared 15 truckloads of gear for Exercise Sandy Fleece, 401 Tactical Fighter Squadron’s deployment to New Mexico.
“We stage all the equipment here,” said Grant. “We measure and weigh everything and contract for the trucks. We organize all the timelines and do all the customs paperwork. And then we set up a two-day period where we can load and get the trucks down to wherever they’re going.
“It’s not just aircraft over here, which is a surprise to a lot of people.”
And a traffic tech’s work isn’t confined to trucks and planes, either. Depending on the circumstances, they can find themselves loading and unloading ships and rail cars, though there isn’t much call for those skills in Cold Lake.
“[Traffic techs] work with the Navy as well,” she said. “When we’re loading a ship, there’s cranes involved and we’re not operating them but we’re directing them. We hire local agencies that provide that service, and we make sure everything is craned onto the ship.”
Similarly, the traffic techs in a Canadian Army service battalion will contract a rail carrier for a big move of material and equipment.
“The carrier will give us so many rail cars, and we load the battalion’s vehicles and freight on the railcars and they go where they need to go. The base you’re on and the role you’re in will determine what type of training and what type of materials you’re taking care of, and what handling equipment you would use,” said Grant.
Transporting dangerous goods is another important skill set, and one where the traffic techs provide needed expertise.
“We do a lot of packaging and accepting for shipment of dangerous goods,” she said. “We have to deal with the international transportation guidelines and rules, depending on what mode of transport you’ve chosen. It’s a big responsibility because there’s a lot that goes into that.”
The demand for their skills and knowledge, plus the sheer volume of people and things on the move, keep the movements section hopping.
“It’s bonkers to be honest. I can’t even tell you a calm period for us. It’s crazy. We came back from leave Jan. 8, and we had the first redeployment flight from Operation Reassurance come in literally the first day back. Jan. 8, 9, 12, 13, like this whole week. And then next week we’re loading those 15 trucks for the next exercise. It’s just constant. And then we’re into Maple Flag, Maple Resolve, air show…”
But she’s not complaining. In fact, it’s clear Grant loves her job. For her, the fun part is the travel and the opportunity to solve problems. Since traffic techs are usually part of a deployment’s advance party, and usually the last to leave, she said they get to experience the complete mission.
“That’s the really fun part of what we do, because you get to see everything from beginning to end and what goes into it,” she said. “When we go in we’re usually there by ourselves or with one other person. You’re really on your own to come up with solutions to whatever needs to be done. I really enjoy that because it’s fun to go into a situation and just make things happen.”
One of her career highlights was contributing to humanitarian aid following the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010.
“We were staged out of Jamaica. We were loading all the humanitarian aid onto the ships because none of the runways in Haiti were stable at that point. So, between the Navy and Air Force and the Army, it was a joint effort to get relief in immediately. It took all three elements to make that happen.
“We worked crazy hours but, to be honest, no one really complains about the hours. To be the first person on the ground where there’s zero logistic support, set up and see that come to fruition, that we provided aid and that it’s as stable as possible …. And then to see everything packed up and to depart a country, and to know that we’ve made a difference in some way–that’s the best part of our trade.”
So, how does Cold Lake rank as a posting for a traffic tech?
Really good, said Grant. “Cold Lake has everything. This is one of the few bases where we do the road moves and we do the air moves. [8 Wing] Trenton, [Ontario], does a lot of air moves obviously, but road moves not so much. Whereas [Canadian Forces Base] Petawawa [Ontario], wouldn’t do any air moves. So, Cold Lake is one of the few bases where you get the full exposure to the broadness of what our trade provides.”
Jeff Gaye is the editor of “The Courier”, 4 Wing’s base newspaper.