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The horizon tilts suddenly as Lt. Mark B. Ables of Amherst banks his low-flying transport plane to make a tight turn.

Like ripples on a sandy sea, dunes stretch into the desolate distance. Far beyond a dipping wing tip, twin flares of light burn off the excess gasses from an oil field.

This close to the Persian Gulf, there is life in the desert. The shadow of Ables' C-130 Hercules races across a landscape dotted with scrub brush only slightly darker than the sand.

"Here, there's vegetation," said Lt. David A. Brown of Eden, the airplane's navigator.

"When we get into Saudi or farther south from here, all you see is sand. At night, even when it's clear, you can't tell the difference between the land and the sky -- and that's scary."

It's also all in a day's work for Mushroom Airlines -- the fliers of the 914th Tactical Airlift Group from the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Base.

The group's air crews belong to the 328th Tactical Airlift Squadron, whose unit patch depicts a mushroom and the motto "Tenete Eos In Teneris." That translates loosely as "Hold Them In Shadow," but the crew members have their own ideas about whom the military is really keeping in the dark.

Flying supplies to the military forces of Operation Desert Shield is the group's specialty. Its sturdy and reliable aircraft are airborne pickup trucks that can carry up to 45,000 pounds of cargo, evacuate the wounded or drop paratroopers.

Crews stationed here help move the materials of war. But while the crisis slowly unfolds, many of their missions are training runs.

On this one, Ables turns the Hercules inland on a low-altitude training mission. In the cavernous belly of the supply transport, Staff Sgt. Gary Zwadzinski of West Seneca opens the rear cargo doors to a nightmarish landscape below.

The dunes give way to barren hills, and then to hazy mountains. Dust-colored ridges reach toward a hazy sky, as the rare clouds of an Arabian winter dim the sun. The aircraft bounces in the turbulent air, its massive wings riding the desert winds.

Zwadzinski, trailing a microphone chord and strapped into a safety harness, stands on the ramp and watches the forbidding wastelands dance 2,000 feet below. The transport's four engines sing a song of power, and the aircraft turns once more for home.

Some of the unit's aircraft have been flying since 1962. They're still clad in the green camouflage of their Vietnam years, and some still bear evidence of battle damage patches.

In the desert, they've flown steadily and well. Only five engines have succumbed to the harsh desert environment and the blowing, powdery sand; the unit has the best record for on-time takeoffs and completed missions of any active duty, Reserve or National Guard C-130 unit in the Middle East.

On the flight deck, where Ables and co-pilot Mark T. Murphy of Kenmore are flying the plane, Brown shouts an explanation over the noise of the engines.

"The maintenance on these is really good," he says. "Some of our crew chiefs have been with this unit forever. Hopefully, we'll get back home with everything intact."

The schedule can be grueling. John Sentman of North Tonawanda, loadmaster on the crew of the squadron commander, Lt. Col. William Weiss, tallies the work load.

"I've flown five of the last seven days," he said Sunday. "The average run is about 12 to 15 hours . . . and they wake us three hours and 15 minutes before that.

"Even if you break under way, you come back and get a new airplane and go out again. Everything is the mission, and getting it done."

They've been doing that for a long time. The unit's oldest current member will be heading home this month to retire at age 60, and there are members of 58 and 59 who have put in long years with the 914th.

Even with morale ebbing after a 90-day extension in their active duty tours, the reservists are helping each other make the best of their desert situation.

"We're all professionals in our positions," Sentman said. "They put us together as a crew, and we go out and do the job. We've always been family, but I think all of us are a lot closer now."

The mission nearly over, Zwadzinski closes the cargo doors. On the flight deck, flight engineer Timothy T. Shotwell of Tonawanda checks gauges while the pilots turn the craft back toward the sea. Below, the ripples of sand give way to waves of blue, and a flock of pink and white water birds takes flight.

Ables banks the plane into its landing approach, easing the heavy craft smoothly down onto the long concrete runway.

Staff Sgt. Ed Chandler of Bradford, Pa., directs the aircraft into a parking spot and waits as the propellers slow. It's yet another busy day at Mirage Air Base, but at least this Sunday the clouds offered some relief.

"With the sun just beating down on you, by the time the day's over you just want to go into your hootch and hide," he said. "You get into a routine -- you work, eat, write letters, sleep and then work again."

Ables and his crew already are preparing for another mission. The Hercules engines roar back to full power, and the aircraft lumbers back to the runway.

Mushroom Airlines is ready for yet another run, on yet another working day.

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