JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash --
Not only do Team McChord Airmen deploy to the Middle East, they also fly around the globe, transporting cargo and personnel to regions devastated by natural disasters, proving themselves not only a fighting force, but a lifesaving force.
Team McChord demonstrated that lifesaving ability in January 2010. On the afternoon of January 12, a major earthquake, measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, struck the Caribbean nation of Haiti near the capital city of Port-au-Prince. This natural disaster caused significant destruction, with casualties in excess of 112,000 deaths and 194,000 injuries, plus an additional 500,000 Haitians in need of humanitarian assistance. Haitian President Rene Preval declared a national state of emergency and requested international help. Soon after the earthquake, international news agencies began broadcasting the crisis around the world. The devastation in Haiti, already one of the world’s poorest nations, caused a global reaction of sympathy and support. President Barak Obama declared the U.S. would provide its full support in the humanitarian assistance effort already underway.
Within three days, Air Force units were prepared to fly into Port-au-Prince as part of Operation Unified Response. The first McChord C-17 Globemaster III flew to Toussaint L’Ouverture airport at Port-au-Prince carrying the New York Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue Team on board, January 16. The aircrew received new tasking from the 618th Air Operations Center (Tanker Airlift Control Center) following a channel mission from Ramstein Air Base, Germany. The flight home marked the conclusion of a 10-day stage mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. When the crew received the call while over the mid-Atlantic, they knew exactly what was coming next—new orders directing the aircrew to McGuire AFB, New Jersey, for crew rest, followed by a flight to Stewart International Airport, New York, to pick up Task Force 1.
When the aircrew entered Haitian airspace, they observed a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier off the coast and a slew of military aircraft. They could also see the devastation, hundreds of collapsed buildings, and thousands of people in the streets. The aircrew described the scene as surreal.
For the flight out, the 4th Airlift Squadron aircrew floor-loaded 186 evacuees, including men, women, and children. Some were elderly and at least two people had serious injuries. The aircraft flew directly to Sanford-Orlando International Airport, Florida, marking the first Air Mobility Command C-17 Haitian relief mission into that airport. For the 4th AS aircrew, the mission left a lasting personal impact.
“The people were getting off the plane,” said Staff Sgt. Joseph Ruiz, 4th AS loadmaster, after ensuring the evacuees were in the hands of relief workers and volunteers. “The look on their faces, the thanks they were giving us, shaking hands, hugging us. I didn’t realize how much we impacted their lives until I saw how relieved they were to be out of there. As the loadmaster, I was the one strapping them down and I was worried about getting people quickly out of there. It wasn’t until we landed that I realized how important the whole mission was and the impact it had.”
Another McChord aircrew from the 8th AS delivered 118,400 pounds of food and water, the first Air Force relief supplies, into Port-au-Prince, and airlifted over 200 Haitians to safety in the U.S. during the next two weeks. They encountered the usual challenges aircrews face in austere environments—minimal air traffic control, vehicular chaos on the ground and severe weather.
Maintenance, aerial port and security forces personnel from the 62nd AW and other wings supported aircrews at Pope AFB, Charleston AFB, and Port-au-Prince. During February, McChord continued to send in large amounts of relief supplies and personnel to alleviate the suffering and chaos in Haiti.
For its part, 13 crews from McChord flew over 126 hours to and from the island of Hispaniola, carrying 3,216 short tons of supplies and 2,227 passengers from January 16 to February 18. In total, AMC aircrews stabilized and evacuated 290 injured people, evacuated more than 27 thousand people, transported 19 million pounds of cargo, offloaded 30 million pounds of cargo and more than 1 million pounds of fuel so airlifters could stay overhead while waiting for a landing slot in Port-au-Prince.
Operation Unified Response was a massive relief mission to a country nearly obliterated by the destructive force of an earthquake. While the rest of the world gathered supplies and personnel needed to aid Haiti, the U.S. Air Force was already on the ground, delivering search and rescue crews and much needed relief aid. McChord aircrews jumped into action with little advanced warning and assisted people during the worst days of their lives.
Sources: Wallwork, E.D., Gunn, K.S., Morgan, M.L., Wilcoxson, K.A. (2010). Operation UNIFIED RESPONSE: Air Mobility Command’s Response to the 2010 Haiti Earthquake Crisis. Scott Air Force Base: Office of History Air Mobility Command.
62 Airlift Wing History Office