Top dawgs: 32nd APS brings home the Bulldog Trophy

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Diana Ferree
  • 911th Airlift Wing

The 32nd Aerial Port Squadron returned to the 2024 Port Dawg Challenge ready to bring home Shepherd, a 60-pound bronze bulldog trophy, to Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, Pennsylvania.

The Port Dawg Challenge was held this year from April 16-18, 2024. The PDC is a biennial event that brings aerial porters from across the world to Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia. This year, teams from the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia participated in the return of the challenge. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the 2021 PDC was postponed, and after placing second in 2019, the Steel City Port team was eager to finish at the top.

"[They] took it seriously from day one," said Master Sgt. Lance Cooper, quality assurance NCO in charge assigned to the 32nd APS and PDC team chief. "They studied, honed their craft, and really brought their individual experiences."

The journey to the winner's circle would not be easy for the 32nd APS. They had to compete against 24 Air Force Reserve Component teams and three international teams in 12 events across the span of three days. With this many "port dawgs," a term affectionately used by air transportation specialists to describe themselves, anticipation brimmed with pride and passion.

The event tests the teams on various air transportation tasks to demonstrate their knowledge proficiency, communication skills, and adaptability in a competitive arena. This design provides readiness training and also fosters camaraderie among professionals in the air transportation career field.

The competition includes high-pressure events like engine running onload/offloads. During ERO/O, teams have to load cargo into a C-130 Hercules with engines still running and propeller blades still spinning. Think of trying to back a truck into a single-car garage, while getting blasted by the dry heat of JP-8 jet fumes from four turboprop engines, each capable of nearly 7,500 pounds of thrust. Or the brutal fitness challenge, which has teams running laps and picking up several pieces of air transportation gear at multiple exercise stations. The challenge ended with a team carry of a long PVC pipe filled with water and golf balls, aptly called "The Bone," to the finish line at the top of a hill.

For many aerial porters, the Port Dawg Challenge is a true test of blood, sweat, and tears.

"The PDC challenges your proficiencies because it makes you train a little harder than you might otherwise," said Cooper. "It challenges the ability to work with your teammates and how you communicate with each other. It’s a very dynamic environment, and you have to think quickly and really know your job well."

In order to score well in the challenges, the teams had to complete their objective with minimal discrepancies and within the provided time to complete the challenge.

The first event for the 32nd APS was the Joint Inspection Cargo Load. The team had to process items by checking dimensions, weight, and inspecting them for unauthorized items. This is a familiar task to all air transportation specialists, or 2T2’s. In order to validate the airworthiness of assets loading into an aircraft, cargo must be inspected and measured for accountability and for the safety of the aircrew.

After four events, the 32nd APS completed Day One outside of the top five scoring teams posted by the event coordinators. But it did not deter the spirits of the team.

"Anytime someone stumbled or faltered, the Wingman next to them put their arm around them and cheered them right up, and we marched on," said Cooper.

The beginning of Day Two started with a test of knowledge – quite literally a written test. The PDC made sure to quiz 2T2s in all areas of their career, not just the physical aspects. Unlike their next challenge, the pallet build-up.

Team members had to select the correct cargo according to their scenario, configure the items on a pallet, and then secure them. All while annotating the correct information of the items to their inventory list.

"The team did really good," said Staff Sgt. Angeliya Tango, special handling representative at the 32nd APS and PDC team member. "As soon as I got the paperwork done, I was able to roll right in and assist with the restraints that we needed to do, which made that part go a lot faster."

The team performed so well that they unknowingly clinched their spot as the Best Pallet Build-Up Team.

Day Two ended with one of the toughest challenges teams faced during the PDC, the engine running onload/offload, or ERO/O.

"That's probably one of the bigger things that we do within our career field, especially in deployed environments," said Tech. Sgt. Jonathan Soisson, ramp supervisor at the 32nd APS.

He explained that there are situations when an aircraft lands to receive or deliver cargo or passengers and then quickly takes off.

"So during this time, they don't shut the plane off, engines are running," said Soisson. This creates a more time-sensitive and difficult mission for the port dawgs.

"You’re getting blasted with hot air, you're getting blasted by jet fumes, you can't hear a single thing, you got double hearing [protection on], but the engines are loud, and you have to make sure that you’re in the safe zone. So there's a lot of key details that are very important," explained Soisson.

The Steel City Port team was able to complete the challenge without major infractions.

"Not only with the speed, but the efficiency of how we did it, [it's] fantastic," said Soisson.

With Day Two in the books, the coordinators posted the updated top five teams unranked, scores hidden and in no particular order: 27 APS, 32 APS, 86 APS, 87 APS, and 4624 Squadron, a team from the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force.

"We came into the final day, and we were in the top five. And so we knew we just had to finish strong, do our jobs, and we would have a shot to be there in the end," said Cooper.

Day Three began operating cargo vehicles used to load different sized pallets to an aircraft. The team split to complete driver’s courses for a 10K forklift and a massive cargo vehicle that can hold 25K pounds of cargo known as a Halvarsen loader. Halvarsens have a large flatbed that can rise up to 18 feet four inches.

Staff Sgt. Logan Plotz, passenger service representative at the 32 APS, was on the 25K Halversen team.

Plotz explained the objective of that challenge was to successfully upload a large pallet with the Halversen vehicle and then drive it through an obstacle course.

Soisson participated in the 10K forklift challenge and explained it all came down to precision. Two team members had to maneuver a forklift through an obstacle course while transporting a pallet of cargo with a pitcher of water placed on top. The goal is to be "perfectly balanced and take everything nice and smooth," said Soisson.

The last event for the 32nd APS was Fit to Fight but not the regular Air Force physical training test. This course involved running laps, exercise stations, and carrying equipment like scales, chocks, and chains. After completing a final lap, their legs burning and sweat dripping in the hot Georgia sun, the team had to team-carry "The Bone," to the finish line at the top of a 67-meter hill.

"I feel like the team did really well," said Tech. Sgt. Brandon Martinez, ramp specialist at the 32nd APS. "We started off very strong and kept it together as a group. And even when we stumbled or got sidetracked, we were able to really tie in and finish strong as a unit."

With their last event behind them, the team felt confident about their performance, which Cooper described as both strong and consistent. All that was left was the revealing of the results.

At the closing ceremonies, the best teams for individual events were announced before the overall winner. The first award was for the 10K Forklift Driving team, and the 32nd APS won.

Amidst cheers and waving bright yellow towels adorned with the 911th Airlift Wing’s motto of "Defend, Mobilize, Fight," both the team and the attending Steel City Port members celebrated. The 32nd APS went on to secure victory in two additional events and claimed a top-three placement in another, further bolstering the team's confidence.

Cooper, who has attended the PDC before, said, "I was keeping an eye on what teams were being called more frequently, and 32nd APS kept coming up. My smile grew wider and wider."

As results came in, Command Chief Master Sgt. Israel Nunez, Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chief of Air Force Reserve, announced the year’s top performers and that 32nd APS won the 2024 Port Dawg Challenge. This was the first win for the squadron and the first win for a 4th Air Force unit.

"I was so impressed throughout the whole competition and throughout our preparation in everybody's work ethic and focus. To be in a room with 28 teams from all around the world, 168 individual competitors, and for us to win three individual events and then the overall team, it meant the world to us," said Cooper.

Despite the victory belonging to 32 APS, the camaraderie of all port dawgs could be seen between the squadrons. The 2019 reigning champs, the 76th APS from Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Ohio, walked over and shook hands to congratulate the newest top dogs.

YARS is just over an hour away from Pittsburgh, and while the local rivalry continues, it’s far from a "dawg-eat-dawg" mentality in the aerial port community.

Port dawg culture ran deep throughout the competition, and many aerial porters had the opportunity to catch up with friends from other bases. Each team guarded their own decorated rawhide dog bone from being stolen from other teams, which resulted in points deducted.

With each challenge, port dawgs visibly showcased their pride in their team's endeavors. Competitors exited the challenges, exchanging victorious hugs and high-fives, while others, with disappointed expressions, received a reassuring pat on the shoulder, conveying a silent promise of improvement in the coming years.

As Shepherd finds its place in the care of the 32nd APS, embodying the enduring spirit of the port dawgs—a community bound by shared triumphs and a commitment to excellence—Cooper looks ahead to training future teams with optimism. "He'll hang out in Pittsburgh until our next team returns to Georgia," he said.