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Posted on Aug 18, 2010 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 052 – Air Movement Plan

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

My first 11 years in the military were in the old Horse Cavalry. Although the Army’s Airborne Forces undeniably originated in the Infantry, and though their outstanding World War II leaders were mostly ex-infantrymen, they nevertheless seem to me to have inherited the tradition and spirit of the Cavalry. I think this is because military spirit is part derived from mobility; forces inherently able to move faster have options and capabilities slower forces don’t have and therefore feel better about themselves.

Airborne spiritis further enhances by the soldier’s knowledge that he repeatedly does something many men cannot themselves do; jump out of airplanes….”


General Hamilton H. Howze


Our last article began our dissection of each of the four plans making up an airborne operation. The focus last month was on the Marshaling Plan. We keyed on answering the following questions: First, what are the preparation actions a unit conducts before marshaling? Second, what are the major considerations in selecting a Marshaling Area? Third, what are the major activities that occur in the Marshaling Area? Finally, what are the major responsibilities of the key players during outloading? We ended the article highlighting the major aircraft utilized in airborne operations.

Reminder: We plan backwards beginning with the ground tactical plan, then the landing plan THEN the air movement plan, and lastly, the marshalling plan. I’m taking literary license by doing it in reverse because I want to save the best for last—the ground tactical plan!

Just a reminder…


Our article this month will discuss the air movement plan. As with each of the plans, it is vital that the plan is solid and links with the other plans. If the air movement plan is done in vacuum; the results on the ground will not be pretty. In regards to the air movement plan, we will focus on several particular subjects including: The Air Movement Table, Types of Air Movement, Load Planning and Manifesting. STAND IN THE DOOR!


The air movement plan lays out how we’ll get our paratroopers from their departure airfield to their objective. It starts when units load the aircraft and ends when they jump out! Although the air commander is responsible for executing the plan, he does not put it together—at least not alone. The air movement plan is the product of a joint Army/Air Force effort; the guys in green know where they need to be and what they’ll need to bring with them while the guys in blue are the experts in getting guys in the plane, over the objective, and out of the plane.

The Air Force nominally controls takeoff time based on the mission. They also plan the timing between departure airfields to make sure that the aircraft will arrive over the drop zones (DZ) in the sequence designated by the ground tactical plan. The air movement plan covers loading and delivery of units in the designated sequence, at the designated time, and at the designated location in support the airborne ground tactical plan.

Another Reminder: Hearken back to the article on air assault operations… (Tactics 101 042 – Air Movement Plan » Armchair General) A lot of the terminology used there is the same as the terminology used here. We’ll revisit three key terms used in the air movement plan and the landing plan. I’ve laid out three key movement terms, smallest to largest. Each grouping is a subset of the one that follows.

  • Chalk or Load: a single aircraft including the personnel and equipment assigned to it
  • Serial: a tactical grouping of two or more aircraft
  • Lift: a single sortie of all aircraft assigned to the mission

Movement Type. The type of movement determines how we load the aircraft. We need to know whether our movement is administrative or tactical. The question seems absurd! When would paratroopers in a theater of war execute an administrative move? In fact, they do it often when headed to an intermediate staging base (ISB) where we might change planes and on-load into assault aircraft in a tactical manner. The administrative movement is non-tactical and is thus, less fatiguing. It spares the paratroopers for a portion of the mission. It is tiring to be fully rigged for a drop. While part of an admin movement, paratroopers and equipment are arranged to conserve time and energy.

Tactical movements are like the ones you see in the movies. Troopers and equipment are organized, loaded, and transported in combat ready configuration, ready to execute the ground tactical plan. Chutes are on, pallets are loaded, and equipment is rigged for drop during a tactical movement.

Aircraft Requirements. The deploying airborne unit is told the type of aircraft that will be provided for their movement. The commander uses this information, received from his headquarters, to determine the number of sorties, by type of aircraft, which he will need to make the move. The air movement planner ensures that each aircraft is filled to maximum capacity using the weight method and the type of load method.

Weight. This weight method uses total weight as the load plan determining factor. Sometimes aircraft run out of space before exceeding their Allowable Cargo Load (ACL) —called weighting out. Long distances to the objective, the requirement to circle before landing, weather effects, and large amounts of fuel can reduce ACL. Therefore, the rule of thumb is that the longer the deployment the lower the ACL.

Type-Load. Many aircraft contain the same types of loads in terms of equipment and personnel within any air movement. Identical or standardized type loads simplify planning and make manifesting and rehearsals easier. The type-load method calculates individual aircraft sortie requirements and is the most common method used for air movement planning. It focuses on load configuration and condition on arrival at the destination, rapid off-loading, aircraft limitations, security requirements, and the operational requirements. The type-load method is more detailed way of planning air movements.

Load Planning. The air movement planner considers tactical integrity, cross loading, and self-sufficiency of each load when preparing the air movement plan.

Tactical Integrity. Planners try to keep units intact as much as possible. For airborne operations, this means placing units larger than squads on separate aircraft so they exit their respective aircraft over the same part of the DZ in order to allow for rapid assembly. The goals of tactical integrity include:

  • Keep squads together on the same aircraft whenever possible.
  • Never break up fire teams.
  • Put fire support teams and their radio operators on the same aircraft with the commander they support—they should jump and land with their boss, ready to support.
  • Forward Observers and their radiomen should fly with their small unit leaders
  • At least one machine gun crew and one anti-tank gunner should fly with each small unit leader (platoon level and above).
  • Each aircraft must have at least one non-commissioned officer or commissioned officer for each unit with soldiers on board.
  • Place sister units close to their assembly areas on the drop zone.

Tactical integrity is further reinforced by distributing the company commander, first sergeant, and executive officer on separate birds—the lead, middle, and trail aircraft in order.

Cross Loading. Cross loading is the distribution of leaders, key weapons, and key equipment across the aircraft assigned in order to prevent the total loss of any mission critical components. In other words, we separate key personnel and equipment in case an aircraft aborts or fails to reach the DZ. This prevents the loss of more than one key officer or NCO of any one unit. Cross loading accomplishes the following:

  • Paratroopers from the same unit land together in the same part of the DZ.
  • Paratroopers assemble more quickly.
  • Vehicles and operators land together.
  • Weapon systems and their crews land together.
  • Heavy-drop equipment is collocated with its operators so it can be derigged and made ready more quickly.
  • Some key leaders and equipment arrive even if one or more aircraft abort or fail to arrive.

When cross loading an airborne force the rule of thumb is that the fewer key people you place on the same aircraft, the better. A smart planner will separate the following key leaders:

  • Brigade commanders from their battalion commanders.
  • Battalion commanders from their company commanders.
  • Brigade and battalion commanders from their executive officer and operations officer.
  • Primary staff officers from their assistant staff officers.
  • Company commanders from their executive officers and first sergeants.
  • Platoon leaders from their platoon sergeants.

Experienced airborne planners are pessimistic by nature—better to be pleasantly surprised than caught short without a back-up. Therefore, paratroopers plan for the loss of one or more heavy-drop aircraft before it gets to the DZ or that the equipment will burn in or streamer when its chute fails. By identifying what might be lost, the planner can develop contingencies for how to get along with the next best replacement. To hedge against a critical loss of capability the airborne planner considers the following:

  • Cross load heavy-drop equipment to have the least possible impact on the mission if it does not arrive in the DZ.
  • Separate critical loads so, if an aircraft aborts or fails, no unit loses more than one key leader or a significant portion of combat-essential equipment.
  • Load heavy-drops in reverse order of landing (last in—first out).
  • Do not include the same type of critical equipment from the same unit in the same aircraft load.
  • Do not include like equipment from different units in the same aircraft loads.
  • Place loads so they land close to the location where they will be used.
  • Cross load parachutists to first support the ground tactical plan; then coordinate their landings with those of the heavy-drop platforms.

Separate radios, mortars, antitank weapons, ammunition bundles, and other critical equipment and supplies as much as possible. No like items of combat-essential equipment from the same unit should be on the same aircraft.

Self-Sufficiency. Each aircraft load should be self-sufficient so its personnel can operate by themselves if any other aircraft misses the DZ, makes an emergency landing prior to the DZ, or is forced to abort. Each single and complete weapon system should accompany its complete crew on the same aircraft along with enough ammunition to place the weapon into operation.

For airland or heavy-drop operations, load trailers and weapons with their prime movers. We’ve seen units forget this when anti tank TOW HMMWV’s were dropped separate from their crews in an exercise. The crews were killed while trying to cross open ground to man their vehicles. This was a significant loss for the airborne battalion.

Squads should stay together on the same aircraft; fire teams are never split up. Squads/fire teams should jump both aircraft doors to reduce the amount of separation on the DZ. Since most tactical drops are at night, this becomes critical. The greater the dispersion; the harder it is for units to link up and assemble.

Heavy-drop vehicles are first loaded with as much unit equipment as they can carry. The vehicle’s load capacity should not be exceeded and all cargo must be secured. Vehicles are measured and weighed after they are loaded. Load cards are made for each vehicle. Each sketch includes the length and width of the vehicle and the names and locations of the cargo on the vehicle.

Aircraft utilization. The unit aircraft utilization plan identifies equipment by aircraft load; this simplifies planning of identical types of loads. The goal is to have most aircraft loads the same. The first step is to weigh personnel and equipment then, add up the aircraft loads to determine how many aircraft are needed. If too few aircraft are available then priorities are applied and equipment and personnel are phased back to fit lift constraints.

The next step after completion of the unit aircraft utilization plan is to prepare the aircraft loading tables. Depending on the type of aircraft employed, the placement of each vehicle and item of equipment is planned. Using templates for the appropriate aircraft, each type of load is laid out. The load must be within the aircraft’s safe center of gravity limits; the ACL must not be exceeded. Before final completion of loading tables, cross loading must be accomplished in accordance with the ground tactical plan.

The development of aircraft loads is accomplished through reverse planning. Aircraft loads must support the assembly and ground tactical plans through effective cross loading.

Once the commander has developed the cross-load plan, he notifies involved units how many and which seats they have on each aircraft. Platoons can be manifested in multiple aircraft to facilitate cross-loading, but personnel are placed in stick order on each aircraft to exit and land in the same general area on the DZ. Each company commander in turn cross-loads his part of the split platoon within his part of the stick to best support the assembly plan and ground tactical plan. Manifesting is accomplished in the reverse order of exit.

The Air Movement Table. The air movement table is the key tool that lays out the air movement plan. The air movement table form is prepared by the ground forces commander in coordination with the Air Force commander. This form, used as an annex to the Operations Order, allocates aircraft to the ground units to be lifted. It designates the number and type of aircraft in each serial and specifics the departure area and the time of loading and takeoff. Exact format for the air movement table depends on the needs of the commander, which can be specified by unit SOP. There is no specific format, but the air movement table should provide information that answers the following questions:

  • Where are we taking off? (the departure airfield for every serial)
  • How many planes go together? (number of aircraft for per serial)
  • How do I find my ride? (chalk number per aircraft, serial, and departure airfield; aircraft tail numbers usually correspond to the chalk numbers)
  • Who is flying us? (the unit ID of the airlift element)
  • What are we flying in? (the number and type aircraft)
  • When do we get on the birds? (load time)
  • When are we wheels up? (takeoff time)
  • Where are we landing? (primary and alternate DZs for every serial)
  • When does the first bird hit the DZ? (P-hour for the lead aircraft of each serial)
  • What else do I need to know? (special instructions, key equipment, and location of critical weapon systems, comms systems, and key members of the chain of command)
  • How are we getting from A to Z? (the flight route)
  • Who is where? (the serial formation)
  • How much will each plane carry? (the allowable cargo loads (ACL))
  • How many planes fit on the airfield? (MOG (maneuver on ground space))
  • Where is my plane? (aircraft parking diagram)
  • Where do I prep my loads? (personnel and equipment rigging areas at the airfield)
  • What do we do if we go down enroute? (emergency procedures search and rescue (SAR))
  • What’s the weather like? (weather considerations)
  • How do we keep our planes from being shot down? (Joint Suppression of enemy air defense (JSEAD), counter-air, and Battlefield Area Interdiction (BAI))

Manifests. The flight manifest is an exact record of personnel by name, rank, SSN, and duty position in each aircraft . It is also a brief description of the equipment, with the station number, as loaded in the aircraft. Load computations for personnel and equipment are also listed. A separate form is made for each aircraft. The senior ground forces member or primary jumpmaster in each aircraft finalizes the form. The Air Force authorizes it, and the ground force representative signs it after verifying the personnel on the manifest.


The Air Movement Plan truly sets the conditions for future success on the ground. It is here that you ensure the right Soldiers, weapons, equipment, and vehicles are on the right airplane to fight as soon as they hit the ground. Any mistakes in the execution of this plan will surely have repercussions. There can be no room for error. Once an aircraft takes off, it is very difficult to correct a mistake on the ground.


We’re getting close to the nitty gritty—the landing plan and the ground tactical plan. This is where the fun is. Selecting objectives and drop zones and then planning how to convert an amorphous collection of paratroopers into a lethal combat unit that wreaks havoc in the enemy’s rear areas. The next two installments will close the loop on the business end of airborne combat operations.



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