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Posted on Nov 13, 2009 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 043 – Air Assault: The Loading Plan

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland




Soldiers from Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, Task Force Currahee, load up in a helicopter to head back to base after completing an operation near Spera in south-west Khowst province, Afghanistan, Nov. 21. During the operation they searched for weapons as well as search for key Taliban leaders within the area.


“It is better to see and communicate the difficulties and dangers of an enterprise, and to endeavor to overcome them, than to be blind to everything but success till the moment of difficulty comes, and to despond.”

The Duke of Wellington




In our last article, we focused on the air movement plan. Our discussion was part science and part art. Along the way we provided sections on terminology, control measures and left you with some keys to success as they relate to air movement planning. In summary: It is during air movement that the Air Assault Task Force is most vulnerable and visible—it’s a sitting duck if caught. A well-executed air movement will achieve surprise and rapid victory. When planned and executed wrong, the ground forces may well end up fighting for their lives as it applied to air movement.


Our article this month will focus on the fourth sub-plan of the air assault—the loading plan. As with the other sub-plans, the Loading Plan is critical to the overall success of the Air Assault. You can relate the air assault load plan to packing your vehicle for a trip. In the case of the trip, you want to make sure you have everything you need (although you always forget something) you want to pack it safely so you do not break anything, and you want to pack it in an order so you can get to everything you need when you need it.

In this article we will focus on packing the bird, packing it safely and packing it in an order that facilitates further operations. We will key on the various tasks and personnel that enable us to achieve this. Let’s get this class started!


As with all air assault planning, the loading plan builds on the previous three plans: the ground tactical plan, the landing plan, and the air movement plan. The loading plan is specifically based on the air movement plan. The purpose of the loading plan is straight forward — guarantee that troops, equipment, and supplies are loaded on the right birds thus preserving unit integrity. A detailed load plan sets the conditions so the Air Assault Task Force arrives at the Landing Zone (LZ) ready to execute the ground tactical plan.

The loading plan has several functions. These include establishing the priority of loads, a bump plan, and how troops and equipment are cross-loaded so that command and control, combat power, and weapons are distributed and thus won’t all be lost in a single aircraft or group of aircraft. Load planning covers the organization and operation of the pick-up zone (PZ), including load positions, markings, and communications. The load plan also addresses the mixing of internal and external loads and mixing aircraft types such as troop and heavy lift—each requires a different size LZ. We will discuss each of these in detail below.

Loading plans are coordinated with the Air Mission Commander (AMC) or the Aviation Liaison Officer (ALO). Copies go to the ALO, command and control elements, the AMC, and the PZ control officer. Battalion or larger operations cover the movement of troops, supplies, and equipment to the PZ, designate unit-loading sites, and dictate timing for arrival, loading, and departing of aircraft. Detailed standing operating procedures (SOPs) reduce the length and detail required in written plans, but regardless, the loading phase demands command attention to ensure smooth execution. A well-planned loading operation is the first step to overall air assault success while a botched loading plan can derail the entire mission.

Let’s address some key factors in The Loading Plan


Identification of PZ’s is the first step of loading plan development. This makes sense since you we need a place to load before you can load. I believe that is the old cart before the horse analogy. Anyway, I digress!

Primary and alternate PZs are identified at the same time with the goal being the location of areas that can accommodate the lift aircraft. PZ specifications such as degree of slope, wind speeds, and distance between aircraft are the planning factors for selection. These can be adjusted based on unit experience and level of training. Extraction under pressure should be considered as part of PZ selection. The PZs must account for the delivery of suppressive fires and provide security for extracted units and helicopters.

Below is a quick checklist of considerations when selecting a PZ:

  • The factors of METT-TC (Mission, Enemy, Terrain and Weather, Troops and Support available, Time available and Civil Considerations).
  • The Commander’s Intent for the PZ.
  • The location of assault forces in relation to the PZs.
  • Size of the PZ. In a perfect world it should be large enough to hold all the birds that will be utilized.
  • The capabilities of the PZ. Will it support the aircraft?
  • How close is it to your Soldiers? You do not want to spend a lot of valuable time getting there!
  • Is it accessible? In particular, is it accessible by ground transport so you can get Soldiers and supplies to the PZ?
  • Is it vulnerable to enemy attack? This includes direct and indirect fire.
  • How much prep is needed to make the PZ usable? It is better to select PZs that are ready as they are, or ones that require limited clearing and preparation



“The Science of PZ Selection”



“The Science of PZ Selection”


The Pickup Zone Control Officer (PZCO) organizes, controls, and coordinates operations in the selected PZs. The PZCO leads a control group that manages operations including air traffic control, subordinate unit movement, and coordinates support personnel that clear the PZ and provide security. Company commanders select their own PZCO when acting as part of battalion operations.

The PZCO has many responsibilities. These include:

  • Forms the aforementioned control group. With that said, he selects personnel he is comfortable working with and who he can trust.
  • Selects a good location where he can execute his operation.
  • Develops a communications plan that facilitates his operation. This should include being able to talk with personnel so he can control the movement to the PZ, the loading of the birds, and to control the arrival and departure of birds on the PZ.
  • Develops a fire support plan that facilitates operations around the PZ.
  • Establishes security so that forces are protected as they assemble, move and are finally lifted out of the PZ. He will normally receive additional forces to perform this task.
  • Clear the PZ of any man-made or natural obstacles so that the PZ is usable.
  • Mark the PZ in accordance to the unit’s Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). PZs are often named and marked by color. Red is never used—it is set aside to mark obstacles such as trees, stumps, or boulders in the landing area. PZ markings indicate where aircraft should land and in what formation. The PZ must be identifiable from the air. Far and near recognition signals are needed, especially at night, to allow pilots to orient on the PZ quickly. Touchdown points must be clearly marked. The PZCO must ensure no other lighting is on the PZ. Any added lights on the PZ can make this an even more dangerous operation than it already is.


One piece of the load plan that gets overlooked somewhat is the actual movement of the Soldiers and equipment to the PZ. This movement should be planned in itself and be very detailed. It is much more complicated than simply telling a unit to get over to the PZ in 30 minutes so you can load some aircraft. If this is the mindset then the air assault has little potential for success. You must consider the following in the movement:

  • Ground and aviation movement to the PZ is planned so that only the troops to load, and the helicopter to be loaded, arrive at the PZ at the same time. This in itself is a complex task. I do not have to tell you what chaos occurs on a PZ when movement is not coordinated. Coordinated movement preserves security and reduces vulnerability to the enemy.
  • To assist in this movement; assembly areas, holding areas (these are utilized when assembly areas are too far away and does not facilitate timely movement to the PZ), and movement routes to the PZ must be planned.
  • The PZCO is a key player in this movement. He will determine movement times and arrival times for all units involved in the operation. He additionally monitors all movement and makes adjustments to the plan as needed.




Determining what and how an aircraft is loaded is a mixture of science and art. In terms of science, there are obviously physical restrictions on what can be loaded on an aircraft. In the case of load planning, size clearly matters! Fortunately, much stubby pencil work has been done to determine what can be achieved. As we have seen in Afghanistan and other environments, altitude and weather can clearly alter any planning factors.

In regards to the art of load planning there are several rules that should be followed if at all possible. These include:

  • Tactical integrity of units. It is critical you load aircraft with tactical integrity in mind. Loading an aircraft with a hodgepodge of Soldiers from a hodgepodge of units is a recipe for disaster when they get the Landing Zone (LZ). The prospects for success in the ground tactical plan are almost non-existent. To facilitate this you want to keep fire team and squad integrity on a bird. To take it one step further, you want to ensure the entire platoons are all on the same serial. If this is achieved, you then have an integrated, trained fighting force on the other end.
  • Self-sufficient loads. Related to the above is that you should strive for complete functionality in each load. That means that the Soldier or piece of equipment has everything it needs on the bird so that it can be successful on the ground at the other end. Each unit load should be functional by itself whenever possible. Below are some examples of this:
    • Every towed item is accompanied by its prime mover. For example, a towed artillery piece is loaded with its’ vehicle mover. Obviously, if that is not the case, your artillery piece is not going very far once the bird arrives at the LZ.
    • Crews are loaded with their weapon systems. As hard as it is to believe there are horror stories where a crew served weapon was not on the same bird as its’ crew.
    • All major items of equipment must be loaded with their component parts. Again, if that is not the case, that piece of equipment will do you little good on the other end.
    • Each Soldier must carry at least a basic load of ammunition with his weapon.
  • Tactical cross loading. The old adage, “do not put all your eggs in one basket” certainly applies here. You cannot place all your key leaders and weapon systems on the same aircraft. For example, in terms of personnel, platoon leaders and platoon sergeants are split up, as are company commanders and their first sergeants. In regards to weapon systems, you do not want to put all your machine guns or crew-served weapons on the same bird. Thus, if an aircraft is lost, the mission is not seriously hampered.
  • Two other things to keep in mind in load planning are: 1) The bird has sufficient personnel and specialized equipment on board to unload whatever is on the aircraft. Nothing is more irritating than seeing a bird sitting on a LZ because the load cannot be unloaded. 2) The personnel who were loaded on the bird possess internal comms with each other. This facilitates operations on the other end and does not tie up the bird’s communication equipment.



Chipnook in the air


One decision that must be made in regards to the loading of supplies or equipment is if it will be loaded internally or externally. If a bird is loaded internally that means the supplies and equipment are loaded inside the aircraft. The advantages of this are that internally loaded helicopters generally fly faster and are more maneuverable. The disadvantage is that it takes longer to load and unload the bird. If a helicopter is loaded externally it means that supplies and equipment are loaded outside the aircraft. This translates to slingloading. The advantages of this are that the supplies and equipment can be loaded and unloaded far quicker than an internal load. The disadvantages are that a slingloaded helicopter is slower and less maneuverable. Additionally, you obviously must possess the sling and rigging equipment and trained, qualified personnel. The caution “do not attempt this at home, these are trained professionals” is certainly the case in regards to slingloading.


One of the things that must be worked out before loading is an aircraft bump plan. On the PZ, there must be a plan in place when aircraft inevitability go down or do not arrive for some reason. A bump priority ensures that the most essential personnel and equipment arrive at the LZ first to facilitate the ground tactical plan. The bump plan specifies which personnel and equipment should be bumped when aircraft go down or do not arrive. If all personnel within a load cannot be lifted, they must know who is to offload and in what sequence. This ensures that key personnel are not bumped. A bump plan is designated for aircraft in each serial or flight. This sequence is listed on the air movement table and ensures that key aircraft loads are not left in the PZ. When an aircraft cannot lift off and key personnel are on board, they offload and re-board another aircraft in accordance with the bump priority. If a bump plan is not developed the end result is chaos on the PZ and a poorly synchronized operation on the other end.


Related to the bump plan is to ensure an aircraft bump and straggler control collection point is established on the PZ. A PZ is not a place for individual Soldiers or groups to be wandering around aimlessly. If Soldiers are bumped from an aircraft they must immediately be moved the collection point. It is here that they are accounted for, regrouped, and rescheduled for a later aircraft.


The sequence of departure from PZs is based on the mission to be accomplished by each subordinate unit upon landing. Priorities are based on the sequence of arrival at LZs. Units are to depart in order based on en route time to the LZ. For example, if Alpha Company is to land first at H-hour, and Bravo Company is second at H+5, and Bravo Company 15 minutes farther away in flight time it may depart the PZ before Company A.




It is critical that there is a well-established and executed communications plan on the PZ. As stated earlier, this is developed and enforced by the PZCO and his personnel. On the PZ, you want to have the most secure comms as possible. Additionally, you want the majority of the personnel involved in the operation operating under radio listening silence. The more personnel talking the more likely the operation can be compromised. It only takes a couple undisciplined Soldiers on a radio net to bring about a rain of artillery shells on a PZ.


As we are all well-aware, things never go as planned. This is certainly the case with the Loading Plan and actions at the PZ. The good units will prepare for the what-ifs. What-ifs include actions that the enemy may conduct on you, weather issues, and maintenance issues. Be prepared!





Above, we have placed a sketch of a PZ. Let’s review some of the terms and depict the locations of a typical PZ (if there is such an animal).

  • At the top and bottom of the diagram, you see unit assembly areas. It is at this location where units maneuver to when ordered. Units will make final preparations for their ground tactical plan. At this time, each Soldier should know which chalk they will be on. As a reminder, a chalk is consists of the personnel and/or equipment designated to be moved by a single aircraft.
  • From there, units will maneuver to the release point when ordered to by the PZCO. As discussed earlier, this maneuver is synchronized with the maneuver of the birds into the PZ.
  • At the RP, chalks are separated from units and ready to move to their chalk assembly area. It is at this time, that some Soldiers and equipment may be bumped.
  • Chalks now move to the Chalk Assembly Area and prepare to load their specific bird. Even at the Chalk Assembly Area, there is still a chance that bumps can take place.
  • Finally, once given the call by the PZCO, Chalks move onto their assigned bird and then depart the PZ.
  • On the left of the sketch you see the following:
    • A designated area for any slingload operations. Remember this takes special equipment and trained personnel. You want to establish an area away from the other birds to conduct these types of operations.
    • An area designated for the security team. This may be a squad size element available to respond to any threats in or around the PZ.
    • You want to have a manned casualty collection point near the PZ. This is not only necessary for any casualties taken from enemy action, but in case there are any accidents on the PZ. As you imagine this is a very busy place filled with dangerous equipment and machines.
  • On the right of the sketch you see the following:
    • The location for the PZCO and his personnel. This is the command post for operations at the PZ.
    • Near the PZ Control location should be the Aviation LNO. He will control the maneuver of the birds entering and departing the PZ. He must work hand in hand with the PZCO. If these two are not on the same sheet of music we have some significant issues.
    • As mentioned earlier, there must be a bump plan and area where those who were bumped must be located. Once a Soldier is bumped he must be taken to bump area so he can be placed on another chalk.
    • You may also have another area designated for another small security team. This way you can break up security responsibilities into two sectors.

As you can see, there is a lot going on at or near the PZ. It takes disciplined Soldiers and quality leadership to make sure things go as smoothly as possible.


It seems that the Load Plan and the PZ sometimes get neglected in air assault discussion. After all, the glamour is all about landing on the LZ and executing the ground tactical plan. However, as you have seen the Load Plan is vital to any potential mission success. You must get the right people and the right equipment on the right bird at the right time. That is a significant challenge and truly puts the pressure on the PZCO and his people. The PZCO must mix a little science with a little art and sometimes a little luck. When things go right it is a beautiful thing! Unfortunately, one little hiccup can have huge ramifications!




We will conclude our mini-series on air assault operations with a discussion on the final sub-plan – the staging plan. Within this discussion, we will focus on preparation and a dissection of the air mission brief which drives the entire operation. At the conclusion of the article we will provide a detailed review of our mini-series and a list of nuggets that will assist you in achieving success when you execute an air assault on your battlefield.


The Coveted U.S. Army Air Assault Badge



  1. Why would you make this kind of information, which, granted is already open source, even more accessible by our adversaries?

    Anybody who actually needs this information (US soldiers, marines, airmen, sailors) are trained to do it. The only result of putting it out there in an easily-found, easily-digestible form is to bolster our enemies’ knowledge and abilities.

    • Hi,

      Reason they put it up:
      – They are running a business here. This is the kind of content their customers want to buy.

      Reasons the government doesn’t interfere:
      – Information presented is not that special anyway
      – “It’s a free country with freedom of speech”
      – Might encourage US kids to pursue a career in the military


  2. Our adversaries already know all of this and a lot more. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be worthy adversaries. If anything, it’s Joe Public’s ignorance that hurts America the most.