Ramstein Airmen demonstrate flexibility in humanitarian response

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Markus M. Maier
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
The men and women of the 37th Airlift Squadron perform approximately 2,500 training and real-world missions annually in support of military operations all over the world.

On occasion, they are asked to show their flexibility and ability to respond with little or no notice in response to a humanitarian crisis.

This was the case when they were asked to participate in the search for two American balloonists who disappeared during rough weather over the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Italy Sept. 29.

Richard Abruzzo, of Albuquerque, N.M., and Carol Rymer Davis, of Denver, were competing in the 45th Gordon Bennett 2010 gas balloon race. They were over the Adriatic Sea, east of the Italian coast, when they made a distress call to the race control center. This would be the last contact anyone would have with the balloonists.

"The message came out that two American balloonists went missing," said Capt. Bryan Swierenga, a 37th AS pilot. "Shortly after that, we were contacted by 603rd Air Mobility Division, and they asked if we can put together a mission to assist with the search and rescue."

Within less than 24 hours, two C-130J Super Hercules took off from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, heading for Italy. But before the Super Hercules could embark on the journey, the squadron's schedulers had to overcome some challenges. The 37th AS officials manage a hectic schedule and last-minute missions require crews, aircraft and maintenance schedulers to come up with some creative rearranging.

"The squadron has to be very flexible, and they are phenomenal at doing that," Captain Swierenga said. "The schedulers sometimes have to bend over backwards to get the job done."

Additionally, the squadron was participating in the wing-wide operational readiness inspection, which made rearranging the schedules even more challenging.

"This mission came down right in the middle of the (inspection), so the whole crew that went was part of the ORI the day before," said Lt. Col. Patrick Driscoll, the 37th AS chief pilot and mission commander for the mission to Italy. "We basically had to drop our pencils here working for the ORI and go straight into crew rest."

Nevertheless, the squadron was able to free-up two aircraft and the necessary crews who immediately began planning the mission.

"We all had to stop and think about what kind of equipment we had to bring and how we were going to execute the whole thing because it's not something we normally train for," Colonel Driscoll said. "So we had to take some extra time to make sure that we were doing the best we could because we knew that people's lives were on the line."

Search and rescue operations are more often handled by the MC-130 Combat Talon, which is used by the special operations community, but the modern avionics and navigation technology of the new J-model proved very useful.

"The C-130J brought the capability to search a wide area of ocean over an extended period of time and also do this at night due to their night vision technology," said Navy Lt. Nicholas Rotunda, the Commander Task Force 67 battle watch captain. "They were able to cover a lot of area throughout the night, which means we could continue the search for a longer period of time. That was something the other participating aircraft couldn't do."

CTF 67, a subordinate unit to the U.S. Navy's 6th Fleet, is responsible for all Navy aircraft in the European area of responsibility, and was the liaison between the Italian coast guard and U.S. search aircraft.

"We basically covered 40 by 50-mile area," Colonel Driscoll said. "We'd do a 40-mile leg from north to south, and then hop over two miles to the side and then do another 40-mile leg south to north at just under 1,000 feet altitude. The Adriatic Sea doesn't look very big on a map, but where we were at the altitude we were at, we never saw land all day."

The colonel added that they were all hopeful that they were going to succeed. At one point the crew received a little extra motivation in form of a surprise radio call.

"The Italian radio operator just called us up out of the blue and said that Mrs. Abruzzo, the wife of one of the missing balloonists, wanted to speak to us," the colonel said. "She was at the search and rescue center in Bari, (Italy), and she actually came on the radio and talked to us while we were out there searching. It was a little bit of a surprise to us because we definitely didn't expect that."

Nancy Abruzzo wanted to thank the crew members for what they were doing and that she understood that there were a lot of people out there spending a lot of time and a lot of effort searching for her husband.

"It sort of made us stop and appreciate the gravity of the situation, when you actually talk to a loved one that is putting all her hopes on you," Colonel Driscoll said.

After several days of scanning the ocean's surface, without any trace of the balloon or the missing Americans, the search operations were called off Oct. 4.

"It was very disappointing for the crew, because everyone was hoping for the best," Colonel Driscoll said. "We ended each search-day with a good solid feeling that we searched our assigned search area 100 percent. I'm confident we didn't miss anything. We did the best we could."

While the 37th AS primary mission is military airlift, the team has proven their versatility, and flexibility on many occasions. From delivering firefighting supplies to a major wildfire in Russia to delivering life saving supplies to an area hit by a natural disaster, the members of the 37th AS always stand ready to respond quickly to wherever they are needed.