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Airmen fly aid to disaster-torn Thai communities

1/4/2005 - BANGKOK, Thailand (AFPN) -- When Lt. Col. David Mobley arrived here as the 353rd Special Operations Group's point-man for disaster relief, he said he envisioned a steady flow of aid from the kingdom's sprawling capital to devastated provinces in the south.

He said he never imagined that in 48 hours the modest pile of assorted blankets, sleeping mats, food, tarps and medicines would grow into a mountain of material, bulging the seams of two aircraft hangars and spilling out onto the ramp.

On the back side of the international airport here, sandwiched between two Royal Thai air force hangars, hundreds of Thai volunteers have sorted the material into distinct foothills of the mountain. Individual cases of bottled drinking water give way to bigger jugs and 55-gallon barrels. Blankets are bundled, wrapped in tarps and piled 25 feet into the air. Cases of medicine from Greece, the United States, Germany and points beyond are inventoried and slated for airlift.

The biggest challenge facing Airmen here is moving the material.

"In less than 24 hours we've transitioned from hand-loading items to palletizing aid with cargo straps and netting. It makes for much quicker (loading and unloading)," the colonel said. "Initially, we lacked forklifts and other equipment that is now available."

The process is now far more efficient and streamlined.

Royal Thai air force leaders and military experts from the country team are directing priorities. They assign items and locations, and it is the American Airmen's job to make the delivery. The most frequent destination is Phuket International Airport, but deliveries have also been made to Krabi, Raynong and Trang, and other locations are being targeted.

The volunteers are given a list of the day's priorities. They build and weigh pallets with the help of Air Force loadmasters. As each plane is loaded, the priorities all shuffle up, three tons of dry ice to Krabi, two pallets of blankets to Raynong, 1,500 body bags to Phuket, and so on.

Besides taking aid and disaster workers into the hardest hit areas, the Airmen also bring out the most seriously wounded. Several dozen injured people, of various nationalities, have been medically evacuated to Bangkok where their wounds will be treated faster.

Airmen from the 17th Special Operations Squadron create daily schedules that push the aircrews and maintainers toward a vigorous pace that sees a single aircraft flying a round-trip shuttle several times a day. The flight times to points south are about an hour-and-a-half, but the ground time varies depending on availability of gas trucks, fork lifts and ground support people to unload the airplane.

"It's a delicate balance of trying to help everybody," one planner said. "There's a massive amount of donated aid and a finite number of planes and crews to transport it all."

Another planner with the 17th SOS said he is happy to be involved. He is working long hours to support the effort but wants to do more.

"I've volunteered to fly south with the aircrews and help unload planes or assist wherever I can. It makes me feel proud to pitch in to help make these people's lives a litter easier."





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