JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska –
The loading ramp at the back of a C-17 Globemaster III began to lower. Behind it, 100 people stood in line looking worn, but with smiles on their faces. They slowly began to pile into the back of the aircraft saying "thank you" as they passed the loadmaster directing them to their seats. After the first 100 were seated and strapped in, there was room for more, so the crew called for another 100 people to board. This process repeated until the C-17 was full and there was no more room. The ramp closed and the loadmasters ensured everyone was secure as the engines fired up and the C-17 began to move.
Humanitarian Airlift has been a major asset the Air Force has used during its history, even before it became the U.S. Air Force and was still part of the U.S. Army - from dropping food to starving French citizens during World War II to Operation Provide Hope, when airlift provided 6,000 tons of food, medicine and other support items to republics of the former Soviet Union. It is no surprise then, that when the super typhoon Haiyan passed over the Philippines and destroyed towns and villages, the Air Force would lend its airlift capability to assist.
That is where a Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson C-17 come in.
A group of active duty and Alaska Air National Guard members flew a C-17 to Kadena Air Base, Japan, to stage and begin their aid to Operation Damayan. They started out by bringing in a forklift to offload pallets of supplies at an airport that had been hit hard by the storm in Tacloban, Philippines.
That quickly changed.
"Flexibility is the most important thing to us," said Air Force Maj. Matt Petersen, 3rd Wing Operational Support Squadron, C-17 instructor pilot. "Even that day our mission changed five or six times. The Marines were running the operation down there, so they would say, 'We need you to bring in a water purification system;' that switched to trucks; switched to food; and switched to different equipment. Even in the course of a day it changed several times."
Then they got a call for a mission they hadn't planned on doing.
"We were on the ground in Tacloban and they (Marines) asked us to take refugees back," Petersen said. "We called back to the people who control our mission and said 'Hey we have the ability to do this, can we do it?' and they said go. We got 400 to 500 people on board and got them out of there that night. We are just there to get the job done so we will do whatever we can."
They began boarding people by taking in 100 at a time.
"With an emergency airlift, everything changes with our normal operations," said Senior Airman Brett Laichak, Alaska Air National Guard, 249th Airlift Squadron C-17 loadmaster. "We had to set aside our normal procedures and accommodate what the new mission required, and that was to get as many people that we can safely out of there. My crew was able to get out 489 people out in one sitting, which is a lot; 747s carry that much and they are about twice our size body wise."
Everyone sat in rows and was strapped in with cargo straps to keep them safe. The most Laichak said he had on board was 489 people; 40 rows of people strapped in.
The storm took out anything that would aid the C-17s instruments in landing, so they had to do it on their own.
"We set up our own navigation approach to make it in there and it was raining and was a tough night, but we had a good full moon and our night-vision goggles available, and that let us pick up the runway even in a low-light environment and go in and land in the middle of the night," said Air National Guard Maj. Scott Altenburg, 249th Airlift Squadron C-17 pilot.
During the winter in Alaska, the nights are long and the C-17 pilots take advantage of this to practice using their night-vision goggles. Altenburg said it was this training that helped him while he was flying at night over in the Philippines.
Things don't always go perfectly, but they had what they needed to make sure it could go as best it could.
"We got to a point where we were ready to take refugees out, but we had a maintenance emergency on one of the engines," said Air Force Staff Sgt. David Arnold, 703rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flying crew chief. "I was able to fix it on the spot, but if there wasn't an aircraft mechanic on the airplane, we would have had to wait probably a day or two to bring someone in from another Air Force base. There were a few other instances where we had maintenance issues and we were able get them taken care of and keep going. After we got the engine fixed, we were able to transport over 300 refugees."
There was one tough decision the aircraft commander had to make, but in the end it worked out and everyone arrived safely.
"We had one woman who was 11 days overdue and showing signs of labor, and they asked me if we wanted to bring her on board, and that is of concern to me as the aircraft commander I am worried she might go into labor in the plane on the flight back," Altenburg said. "I agreed that I would take the pregnant woman, but they would have to provide a doctor to go with her."
Despite the maintenance issues, long hours, and tough decisions; everyone agreed they were happy to help.
The C-17 made a final approach and a loadmaster made an announcement over the public address system. "Welcome to Manila," the loadmaster said to cheers and raised hands with excitement coursing through the evacuees. A quick reminder came over the PA system to inform them to stay seated and everyone sat back down. They had made it out of the ravaged city of Tacloban and made it to Manila.
This article was originally published at: http://www.jber.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123373326