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Airmen provide lifeline to typhoon survivors

Nov. 21, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Staff Sgt. Antonio Garcia, 353rd Special Operations Group, directs Filipino passengers to an aircraft Nov. 17 at Guiuan Airport.
Staff Sgt. Antonio Garcia, 353rd Special Operations Group, directs Filipino passengers to an aircraft Nov. 17 at Guiuan Airport. (Tech. Sgt. Kristine Dreyer/Air Force)
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Airmen are playing a vital role in getting life-saving supplies and care to the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos whose lives have been upended since Super Typhoon Haiyan made landfall Nov. 7.

As of Nov. 19, special operations airmen had flown more than 122 sorties, transported about 2,700 people from devastated areasto Manila and moved more than 508,000 pounds of relief supplies, said Col. Ben Maitre, commander of the 353rd Special Operations Group based at Kadena, Japan.

Since most of the special operations airmen arrived Nov. 12, they have lighted the runway at Tacloban airfield to allow planes to land at night, and they opened three separate airfields so that supplies can be distributed throughout the Philippines, Maitre said in a Nov. 20 interview.

Opening the extra airfields cleared a bottleneck in the flow of relief supplies, he said.

“No matter how much aid you had flowing into Tacloban, it was not able to get off the airport,” without the separate airfields,said Maitre, who commands a detachment of about 150 airmen. “Because of the geographic layout of the Philippines and the extensive infrastructural damage, there was no way to disperse the aid to all the affected regions.”

Even before most of the airmen arrived in the Philippines, the special operations airmen pored over imagery of the area devastated by the typhoon to identify airfields with existing hard-surface runways that could be used to accommodate air operations, Maitre said. Once on the ground, his airmen moved quickly to get the airfields at Ormoc, Guiuan and Borongan up and running.

“Finding additional airfields — that my combat controllers identified themselves [and] suggested to the higher headquarters here for opening — was what allowed the aid to be distributed much faster, to rapidly respond to the dire situation that was getting worse by the day on the ground,” he said.

Now that the airfields are open, special operations airmen are transferring air operations to conventional forces to sustain relief efforts for a long term. Maitre said. Pacific Air Forces has sent about 16 airmen with the 36th Contingency Response Group based at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, so that local airfields can handle C-17s.

At any given time, air operations involve between eight and 10 MV-22s from the Marine Corps, four C-130Hs from Kadena and Yokota air bases in Japan and a handful of C-17s, said Lt. Col. Michael Black, deputy commander of the 36th Contingency Response Group.

Black traveled to Tacloban soon after he arrived in Manila on late Nov. 10.

“It was very stark in the reality of how folks were living out there,” Black said. “What I did see was a lot of community cooperation. Everybody was working to get themselves away from the affected area or to help others that were affected more severely. It was devastating, but it was organized and peaceful and a really good representation of how the Philippine government and community immediately started working together.”

Since their arrival, the 36th Contingency Response Group has moved cargo and relief supplies into Tacloban while taking people out of the disaster area, he said. Airmen have been doing similar work at Clark Air Base, as well as aiding in security and intelligence.

“I’ve seen the momentum build pretty quickly,” Black said. “There was a turning point. You could sense it [Nov. 14 or 15] that the host nation really had its hands around this and everybody was operating in a synchronized fashion. You sensed everybody was getting their hands around it and the mood shifted.”

The work Black has been doing is similar to his mission two years ago in Thailand to help people displaced by floods, he said.

“These are the missions it’s a privilege to be on,” Black said. “I’m glad to be here, glad to be a small part. We’re doing some good things.”

With four runways open, air operations are moving at a breakneck pace. One of the airfields has accommodated up to 115 relief sorties a day, while humanitarian missions typically average between 30 and 50 sorties a day per airfield, according to an Air Force Special Operations Command news release.

Facing limited space to park aircraft, combat controllers have found themselves with having up to nine aircraft on the ground with another five waiting to land, the news release says.

“The most challenging part was having that much traffic with a single runway,” Staff Sgt. Aaron Davis, a combat controller from the 353rd Special Operations Group, said in the news release.

With so much traffic, airmen have had to be especially careful to make sure passengers get on aircraft safely after relief supplies have been offloaded, Davis said in the news release.

Capt. Kenneth King, of the 17th Special Operations Squadron, has been flying people from Tacloban to Manila almost every night since he arrived in the Philippines. His aircrew fits as many people as can comfortably and safely fit into his MC-130P for each trip.

“Our numbers have been ranging widely depending on the age of the people,” said King, who is stationed at Kadena. “There was one flight that had almost 40 infants, all children under 1 year of age. That particular sortie we had a little more than 120 people on the aircraft just because 40 of them were so small.”

King was not part of his unit when it responded to the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters in Japan, so this operation marks the first time he has responded to a disaster, he said.

“The most poignant for me was out at Tacloban: We got all of the cargo ... downloaded off of the aircraft and we were getting everything ready to receive our evacuees, as many as we could fit, and the first group to come out to the aircraft were all young children, approximately 8 years of age and younger, and they were all being chaperoned by a Filipino military guy,” King said. “There were no other adults in that group. I can’t confirm it but my suspicion is those 10 kids were all orphans of the typhoon.”

It means a lot to King that the people he is flying out of Tacloban all thank him as they are getting in the plane, even after all they’ve been through.

“Just knowing that we were able to get those people to comfort and safety back in Manila, that’s been very fulfilling,” he said.

Kristin Davis contributed to this report.

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