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Operation Christmas Drop delivers relief to typhoon-stricken island

ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam (AFNS) -- Airmen participating in Operation Christmas Drop here, coordinated with non-governmental organizations and State Department officials in the region to airdrop critical shipments of water and food for 30 workers recovering from damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan on Kayangel Island, part of the Republic of Palau in the western Pacific Ocean Dec. 11.

Within 48-hours of the initial request for help, Airmen from Yokota Air Base's 36th Airlift Squadron and Andersen Air Force Base's 36th Wing, planned and executed a C-130 Hercules mission that flew nearly 800 miles from Andersen to airdrop the supplies to on the sparsely inhabited island.

"Working closely with the U.S. Department of State and the University of Guam, we were able to leverage the Air Force's tactical airlift capability to provide timely aid to those in need," said Lt. Col. Andrew Campbell, 36th Airlift Squadron Operation Christmas Drop detachment commander.

Kayangel, the northernmost island-state of Palau, was so devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in mid-November that 69 of the 300 total Kayangel residents who did not initially leave before the storm were forced to evacuate after the storm passed.

The category 5-equivalent super typhoon - with up to 145 mph sustained winds - swept away homes, foliage, infrastructure and--perhaps most critically--the island's water collection and storage facilities. Luckily, there were no typhoon-related fatalities on the island.

"All structures were damaged or lost, including the school, but all 69 people were evacuated to Koror and now only a relief (and) rebuild team is on Kayangel; they were hungry and very thirsty as no local water or coconuts are available," said Bruce Best, the station manager at the University of Guam's Telecommunication and Distance Education Operation at the Center for Continuing Education Outreach Programs.

Best's program, which connects telecommunication services to remote areas of the Pacific, has been coordinating with officials in the region in response to damages caused by November's typhoon.

"(Pacific Air Force's) vital water and food drops saved the day and were very appreciated - the U.S. Air Force rocks!" Best said.

Coordinating the request for help proved challenging for the government of Palau and representatives from the U.S. State Department working at the U.S. Embassy on the nearby island-state of Koror.

"Really, the only means of communication to Kayangel is by VHF radio to the state representative in Kayangel," said Joyce Isechal, from the U.S. Embassy Palau.

"When I relayed to Palau Minister of State Billy Kuartei last Wednesday at noon that the U.S. Air Force 'Santa' had just dropped water and food for the residents of Kayangel, he was elated and said, 'That's what they need."'

Airmen executing the mission used a novel approach to ensure over 4,800 pounds of water and food were securely dropped without loss using the Low Cost, Low Altitude re-supply system. A team of riggers from Yokota Air Base's Combat Mobility Flight met the challenge of devising a way to deliver six low-cost, low-altitude bundles of water that weighed up to 550 pounds each, a first for the program.

They surrounded the bottles of water with custom-cut pieces of cardboard honeycomb to prevent shifting and to help stabilize the load.

"It's not an easy task at all," said Staff Sgt. Landon Soles, an air transportation specialist from the 374th Logistics Readiness Squadron at Yokota. "Water is one of the most difficult payloads to airdrop as it gains its own momentum."

Soles, a graduate of the U.S. Army Rigger's School at Fort Lee, Va., said his team utilized as much energy dispersing material as possible to dampen the shock that occurs when a parachute payload hits its target.

"The Army has been trying to perfect the delivery of water via airdrop for years," Soles said. "Even with robust and reinforced water containers, it's difficult to keep the entire water package intact without any sort of material loss." Soles said when the 10-person rigging team received word of the Kayangel mission, they jumped into action, devising a strategy they felt worked best for the LCLA airdrop delivery method.

They rigged the bundles late into the evening so they could make next morning's C-130 load plan bound for the island.

"It's not uncommon for us to get a short-notice task to create a custom LCLA bundle," Soles said. "It's very rewarding to know that the skills and the team we brought here were put to good use, helping out our neighbors here in the Pacific."

Officials on Kayangel plan to complete work on the island's water facilities in the near term as the goal is for residents to return to the island and re-build their homes and community, Best said.

"I hope (Andersen and Yokota) understand the attitude of gratitude not just from the people of Kayangel, but the leaders of Palau who recognize the efforts of others who understand the challenge of recovery," Isechal said.

Campbell said that the Kayangel relief operation was a prime example of how operations such as Operation Christmas Drop can flexibly match critical needs with available mission resources in an evolving tactical environment.

"We are operating in the same spirit of Gen. George Kenney, the World War II visionary whose use of tactical airpower in the Southwest Pacific continues to inspire Airmen to innovate, adapt and meet mission needs," Campbell said.

"Here at Operation Christmas Drop, we're able to do that quickly, safely and with real mission effects. This mission flew 4,000 pounds of donated food and water--rigged for about $100--and delivered directly where it was needed, safely and accurately."

Kenney, who was the commander of Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific during the war, led many strategic, operational and tactical improvements of the organization and mission of the theater's air component. He later became the first commander of Strategic Air Command and then Air University.

During Operation Christmas Drop, Yokota riggers expect to prepare approximately 80 bundles containing 20 tons of donated relief set for distribution via C-130 airdrop throughout Micronesia. The operation continues through this week. (2nd Lt. Jake Bailey, 374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs, contributed to this article.)
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