Moments & Milestones: Low and Dark
- By Stuart Nixon
- Air & Space magazine, March 2002
AIR FORCE CAPTAIN JODI A. NEFF of the 3rd Airlift Squadron at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware is the first woman to command one of the world’s largest aircraft, the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, on special operations low-level (SOLL) night missions. This means flying the four-engine mega-transport at altitudes of 500 to 1,000 feet, in marginal weather, with no exterior lighting, and in unfriendly territory to deploy equipment, personnel, or supplies.
Neff began training on the C-5 a scant four years ago after transferring to Dover from a tour of duty in the Midwest, where she flew a much smaller aircraft, the C-21. Taking note of her exceptional skills in the cockpit, her superiors at Dover hand-picked her for the SOLL training program. Today, at age 30, she not only flies the Galaxy, she instructs other pilots, qualifies those upgrading from day to night SOLL operations, and conducts training in C-5 aerial refueling.
Although she majored as an undergraduate in what she calls her “fallback” field, meteorology, she subsequently earned a master’s degree in aeronautical science in 1998, the same year she first climbed aboard a C-5.
“You just don’t realize how big it is until you strap yourself in,” Neff says. “On my first check ride in the C-5 simulator, I landed pretty hard because I was accustomed to being about 10 feet off the ground in other airplanes, whereas in the C-5, I was about 40 feet.”
Perceptually, Neff explains, the operating environment becomes particularly tricky when flying at the extremely low altitudes of SOLL missions. Just as objects in car mirrors are closer than they appear, so too, says Neff, is the ground closer than it appears when you are skimming it at three-digit heights. On night SOLL flights, Neff uses night-vision goggles. “Even with little or no moonlight, I can see for miles,” she says. “Strangely enough, the hardest part of my job is on the ground. When you are taxiing something as big and heavy as the C-5, you have to think ahead all the time.”
With the C-5, Neff has delivered over 200,000 pounds of equipment to U.S. and allied forces in Kuwait, flown three munitions-transport missions in Kosovo, conducted humanitarian flights during civil unrest in East Timor, and helped evacuate typhoon victims in Korea.
Last year, the National Aeronautic Association presented Neff with its Katherine and Marjorie Stinson Award for Achievement in recognition of her singular success on the Galaxy flight deck after only seven years in the military. The NAA said Neff’s accomplishments in the SOLL arena recall the pioneering spirit of the Stinson sisters. One of Katherine Stinson’s tricks in the early 1900s was to perform night maneuvers with flares on her aircraft to trace her path against the dark sky.