MEDAN, Indonesia -- An Airman (left) with the 17th Special Operations Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan, talks with a ramp leader here. (Digitally altered U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Michael Farris)
LANGKAWI, Malaysia -- An MC-130P Combat Shadow from Kadena Air Base, Japan, takes off from here Jan 14. Crews from Kadena's 17th Special Operations Squadron fly into Indonesia daily, shuttling humanitarian relief supplies into Banda Aceh. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Michael Farris)
by Master Sgt. Michael Farris
353rd Special Operations Group Public Affairs
1/18/2005 - BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AFPN) -- Airmen from the 353rd Special Operations Group at Kadena Air Base, Japan, are going home. Almost a month after a monster earthquake and killer tsunamis claimed untold thousands of lives, the Airmen’s quick-reaction work here is complete as conventional Air Force units have arrived.
The MC-130 Combat Shadows and Combat Talons have flown nearly 1 million pounds of cargo and more than 600 disaster relief workers into the most devastated region of the hardest-hit nation. The group’s special operations capabilities enabled the Air Force to respond immediately.
Three days after the quake, four MC-130s took up residence at the international airport in Bangkok. As Combined Support Force officials drafted policy and objectives, the group’s Airmen flew relief into Phuket, Krabi, Raynong and other cities on Thailand’s west coast.
In those critical initial days, more than 117 tons of vital supplies were flown south along with 155 aid workers. Equally important were 32 critically injured patients who were flown to Bangkok’s state-of-the-art hospitals for emergency surgeries and care unavailable in the ravaged south.
American military leaders rank-ordered the precedence of need, and exactly one week after the catastrophe, two MC-130s flew from Kadena to Langkawi, Malaysia. They carried an advance team to receive the four from Bangkok -- arriving only three hours later. The geographic significance of Langkawi is its proximity to Banda Aceh -- one hour by air -- and its relative good fortune in avoiding the tsunamis’ wrath.
The tsunamis devastated Indonesia, leveling entire cities. More than 157,000 people are confirmed dead, and thousands more are missing. The scale of devastation was daunting as Sumatra was unable to sidestep the brunt of destructive waves.
The status of local airfields was uncertain, but SOG combat controllers made rapid airfield surveys and gave thumbs-up. Hours later, the first aid arrived. Relief flights were delayed the second night when a wayward water buffalo strayed onto the runway and was struck by a commercial 737 after touchdown.
Another limiting factor at Banda Aceh is size. Much like the Berlin Airlift nearly half a century ago, aircraft here are held to tightly regimented schedules. The airfield is very small and only a few cargo planes can maneuver on the ramp at a time. Military air lifters and aid agencies from around the globe queued to have their precious deliveries unloaded by forklift operators whose experience is unmatched. Most planes left engines running to hasten their departure, but that increased commotion on the ramp.
A subsequent priority of Air Force planners was to find a secondary airfield to relieve congestion. Within days, combat controllers determined Maimun Saleh, an airfield on Sabang Island, north of the Sumatran mainland, was ready to receive flights.
Based out of Malaysia, the Airmen first flew into Medan, or Jakarta, Indonesia, where they loaded up with medicine, blankets, tarps and food for Banda Aceh or Maimun Saleh.
On Jan. 14, the Airmen of the 17th Special Operations Squadron flew a dozen French aid workers and their equipment into Banda Aceh. Only after these Airmen completed their jobs could the rebuilding begin.
The primary concern of U.S. forces here continues to be preventing further loss of life and human suffering, and to enable regional forces to conduct sustained disaster management efforts, officials said.
The group’s Airmen have accomplished their first-responder mission and must now give way to the Air Force’s workhorse airlifters, said Col. Norman Brozenick, 353rd SOG commander. (Courtesy of Air Force Special Operations Command News Service)