PHILADELPHIA - Long rows of 10th Combat Aviation Brigade helicopters faced the Delaware River from the Port of Philadelphia Sept. 20, flanked by dozens of cargo containers bearing the Falcons' distinctive stencil. The 10th CAB gear was to be loaded on a ship for deployment to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Supervising the load were personnel from 956th Transportation Company and 841st Transportation Battalion, both subordinate units of Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command. Port of Philadelphia stevedores, Soldiers from 10th CAB, and SDDC personnel collaborated to achieve what would be the last load-out for 956th. The unit, headquartered at Fort Monmouth, N.J., will close in 2009.

The complexity of moving an aviation brigade's equipment requires special skills and coordination in advance to the load-out, and for the Navy Military Sealift Command's USNS Soderman, the load would be followed by an additional load-out scheduled for the Soderman at Charleston, S.C.

"The USNS Soderman load was difficult because we were loading two Brigade Combat Teams at two different ports, and one port had cargo for two different Sea Points of Debarkation," said Capt. Phil Raumberger, port operations officer for 841st Transportation Battalion. "The amount of planning and coordination is huge, and the staging and stow plans all need to be detailed and followed to a T."

"A lot goes into getting the aircraft staged," said Maj. David McGurk, commander of B Company, 277th Aviation Support Battalion. "All the gear was flown in and staged Sept. 15-18, but in reality, preparations have been ongoing since July."

An advance team from 10th CAB flew helicopters from Fort Drum, N.Y., to the Port of Philadelphia in August as a preliminary meeting with all the parties coordinating the load-out, McGurk said. The load-out involved coordination between 10th CAB, SDDC, MSC, specialized contractors tasked with the loading of the aircraft, and Philadelphia longshoremen responsible for loading the remaining cargo.

In order to fly dozens of aircraft into the Port of Philadelphia, 10th CAB had 20 Soldiers on the ground at the port, as well as an officer in the air traffic control tower at Philadelphia International Airport. A radio communication range of up to 20 miles allowed 10th CAB air traffic controllers on the ground at the port to help the aircraft approach and land safely. From that point, another team stepped in.

"The longshoremen don't work with helicopters, so we have contractors that are specialized in loading aircraft. We end up having three unions acting together," including the crane operators, McGurk explained. "What really made the load-out smooth were the 31 aviation equipment contractors doing the lion's share of the work. Moving these aircraft is a game of inches. Even the smallest amount of damage would involve an inspection."

Rick Savage, the contract equipment specialist supervising the aircraft loading, has been working around aircraft since 1989, when he was an aviation machinist's mate in the U.S. Navy.

"Beyond getting the aircraft safely on the ground and staged, you need special training to tow, ride ther brake, and move the aircraft from point A to point B," said Savage. "There are a lot of moving parts to track."

The aircraft varied in size from the compact OH-58D Kiowa - a two-seater light enough to be pushed to the base of the Soderman's ramp by a few people - to the CH-47 Chinook, weighing more than 11 tons.

"[Savage's] nineteen years in aviation gives him the experience necessary to plan ahead and have everything covered throughout the process," said McGurk.

As he followed the load-out of the Soderman from start to finish, Raumberger got to see first-hand how the various teams coordinated their effort, both aboard the ship and along the riverfront.

"It speaks volumes to the level of expertise and commitment to excellence of the 956th and 841st personnel who are capable of executing such a complex loadout," he said. "Everyone involved from the Soldiers to the Department of the Army civilians to the labor force understand the importance of a successful load-out."

By the afternoon of Sept. 21, all the equipment was loaded and secured aboard the USNS Soderman for an early departure. For 956th, one of the units that helped establish Port of Philadelphia as one of the nation's strategic ports, the last load-out mission was complete ahead of schedule, a last testament to the expertise and experience of its workforce.

"The personnel from the 956th will be sorely missed, both professionally and personally," said Raumberger. "They did great work for SDDC and are a good asset to have in the Northeast U.S. It's unfortunate; I wish them all the best of luck. The respect for the Soldiers we are supporting is evident in everything these guys do."