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Humanitarian airmen

Bringing aid and support to those in jeopardy

A McChord C-17 Globemaster III transports humanitarian aid supplies to American Samoa after a tsunami hit the island September 2009. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force

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Our military members know all too well the feeling of watching the news and wondering if they will need to deploy when tensions mount anywhere there are American interests. Air Mobility Command airmen also watch the news and prepare for a phone call when natural disasters strike anywhere in the world. As units of AMC, the 62nd and 446th Airlift Wings not only bring the fight to the enemy, but also bring much needed aid and support to those in jeopardy.

This is not a new phenomenon. From delivering hay to cattle stuck in blizzards during the 1950s, and flying communications and search and rescue missions during the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1981, to flying supplies and personnel into hot zones in 2014, Team McChord is always willing to lend a hand to those in need.

With the first delivery of the C-17 Globemaster III in July 1999, the 62nd and 446th AW were better able to support humanitarian operations around the globe. During the 2000s, a slew of natural disasters stormed across the world, devastating entire regions, killing hundreds of thousands, and leaving millions without shelter and basic necessities. While the 62nd and 446th AW deployed many of their members to the Middle East, they also jumped in to help both at home and abroad.

In 2008, the 62nd AW jumped into action when Hurricane Gustav roared across the Caribbean and threatened the southern U.S. coast. Neither the military or local disaster preparedness officials wanted to repeat the confused and slow response which occurred in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. On Aug. 30, 2008, three C-17s with 10th Airlift Squadron aircrews took off for New Orleans, via Travis Air Force Base, California, where the C-17s picked up personnel and equipment from the 615th Contingency Response Wing that were deploying to the Gulf Coast. The 615th CRW was trained and equipped to set up AMC infrastructure in an austere environment, such as the devastated environment expected if Gustav hit the southern United States hard. Three days later, a crew from the 7th AS flew four Humvees, two generators and an aeromedical evacuation team into New Orleans to assist officials during and after Gustav. Hurricane Gustav made landfall Sept. 1 as a category 2 hurricane, but still caused $6 billion in damages in the United States alone and claimed the lives of 153 people in the United States and the Caribbean.

Less than a week later, the 618th Air Operations Center (Tanker Airlift Control Center) put the 62nd AW on alert readiness again for another hurricane making its way toward Texas. Six 62nd AW aircrews stood by at McChord Field and Altus AFB, Oklahoma, ready to transport cargo and passengers. Hurricane Ike struck Galveston Island, Texas, Sept. 12, 2008, and continued its devastating course northward. By the time Ike weakened to a few clouds, it had made its way to Canada, caused $30 billion in damages in the United States, and claimed the lives of 113 people in the U.S. An aircrew from the 10th AS transported cargo and vehicles on a C-17 to Texas to aid in recovery efforts.

A year later Sept. 29, 2009, the 62nd AW once again responded to a natural disaster, this time half a world away after an 8.1 earthquake triggered a tsunami that hit Samoa, American Samoa, and Tonga. Waves 15 to 20 feet high hit American Samoa leaving dozens dead and thousands homeless. A combined team from the 7th AS and the 62nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadrons arrived at Pago Pago International Airport in American Samoa Oct. 1, on McChord C-17s. Included in the 17,000 pounds of cargo was portable communications equipment to restore search and rescue communications. The 17,000 pounds of equipment and the nine Federal Emergency Management Agency members also on the flights were important in the American Samoa recovery effort. The same 7th AS aircrew delivered 42,000 more pounds of relief supplies to Pago Pago Oct. 10.

One day after the Samoa tsunami, a 7.6 earthquake shook Sumatra, Indonesia, and killed 1,115 and injured over 2,000 more. Nearly 300,000 people were left homeless by the earthquake. Already on alert at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, due to the Samoa tsunami, the 7th AS aircrew was sent to Indonesia with 87,000 pounds of relief supplies. Other U.S. Air Force personnel in a humanitarian assistance rapid response team were already at Minangkabau International Airport, Sumatra, to receive the food, water, medical supplies and a forklift. By the time the 7th AS crew returned to McChord, they had flown their C-17 more than 23,000 nautical miles and delivered more than 146,000 pounds of cargo in support of humanitarian relief operations. Though tired, the 7th AS crew knew their efforts were worth it.

"It's an honor to fly these missions," said Capt. John Cortney, 7th AS pilot.  "Supporting humanitarian relief operations is very rewarding, knowing that your efforts have an immediate, positive impact on the lives of many people."

C-17 missions are not always about transporting military personnel and cargo in wartime operations, though it certainly does make the news. Many times, C-17 missions are about flying supplies to people in desperate need, transporting search and rescue teams to devastated areas, and bringing hope to those who have lost everything. While our enemies may fear the sight of a C-17 roaring in to bring justice, others celebrate knowing help is on board.

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