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10 January 2005

Air Force Team Performs an Unusual Role in Indonesia

Relief flights fly to hardest hit regions of Banda Aceh

(The following article was published by U.S. Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs January 9.  There are no republication restrictions.)

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Air Force, Partners Deliver Aid to Indonesia


By Master Sergeant Michael Farris

353rd Special Operations Group [SOG]

Banda Aceh, Indonesia -- Unfamiliar partners from disparate lands have tuned the tools of their humanitarian outreach trade and are working in unison in the wake of one of the world's worst natural disasters.

For the men and women of the 353rd Special Operations Group, based in Langkawi, Malaysia, the 16-hour days typically begin, oddly enough, at night.

Just an hour's flight from Sumatra's shattered west coast, crews of the C-130 [cargo] aircraft there take off around dusk.  Their destinations are Indonesia's capital of Jakarta or the humanitarian hub at a military airfield in Medan.

(Indonesia was among 12 nations struck by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami December 26, 2004, that has killed more than 150,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damages.  The United States and dozens of other nations have been conducting major humanitarian relief operations since the tsunami struck.)

U.S. Marines and Indonesian military personnel there help aircrews pack the planes to thresholds.  On a single mission, the 1st Special Operations Squadron carried 10 doctors from Portugal with tons of medical equipment, two mobile water purification trailers from Spain, and an enthusiastic contingent of disaster response specialists from Mexico.  Bundles of cargo burst the seams of aircraft hangars in Jakarta and Medan bearing the flags of countries from around the world.

Logisticians and leaders prioritize the loads and the [C-130] Hercules aircraft cycle through the process.

Most of the precious cargo is flown to the hardest hit region of Banda Aceh.  U.S. Marines and Air Force combat controllers direct the offloading of C-130 and other aircraft throughout the night.  The massive bundles can be upwards of eight feet high and weigh several tons -- far too large for effective distribution in this stark land where roads are impassable, trucks are scarce and the citizens are desperate.

The C-130 aircraft head back to Medan for second and third loads, always balancing [the aircraft's maximum] capacity with [safety demands].  Forklifts do much of the heavy lifting, but not all.  Loadmasters and ground personnel soak through T-shirts and flight suits in the humid Indonesian nights.  Piles of tent poles and 200-pound canvases are too bulky to load on pallets and are instead heaved about with brute, backbreaking force.

As crews work to upload a U.S. plane, they pause to watch a seemingly endless line of refugees exit another.  Thousands of refugees, many injured and all horribly shaken, have been flown to Medan by the international contingent.  Very few carry any bags.

At dawn, swarms of U. S. Navy helicopters swoop into Banda Aceh from ships anchored off the coast.  They queue into receiving lines at the airfield, directed by civilian air traffic controllers and 320th Special Tactics Squadron [ground] controllers.  More helicopters from the Indonesian Air Force join the file and haul bundles to shattered cities up and down the coast.

The Air Force controllers use airfield management expertise to improve the efficiency of the operation and keep it safe.  Another team of combat controllers works cargo shipping veins from Medan.

The hardscrabble squad organizing moving parts in Banda Aceh, quintessentially define the term remote.  Tent-life would be a step up in this rural Indonesian town where the dead outnumber the living.  The troops sleep on the tarmac on cots covered with mosquito nets a mere 75 yards from where cargo planes maneuver in for offloading.  The noise and commotion occur round-the-clock and the physical demands are endless.

Their food and water consist of that which they brought in their trucks.  As the sun comes up back in Langkawi, Malaysia, aircraft maintainers recover the planes and assess the status.  The aircrews trudge off to sleep and the maintenance begins.  The logistic trail back to Japan is a long one.  Pile on language barriers (times two), security considerations, and a minimal workforce and the challenges become apparent.  Two hallmarks of special operations -- flexibility and innovation -- are exercised daily.

According to Lieutenant Colonel Rick Samuels, the Air Force Special Operations component commander, the work being done by the [special operations group] here is vital to recovery in the region.

"The moment we fail to react to others in need, we cease to be human," he said.  "Our government cares deeply about helping these folks get back on their feet, and we demonstrate that daily."

Samuels said the 353rd SOG considered several operating bases before deciding on Langkawi.

"In the days following the quake and tsunamis, there were a lot of questions regarding how to best get supplies in," he said.  "The air choice was an obvious solution, but it's rarely efficient to bed down at a forward distribution center.  Ramp space is a premium and there's simply too much traffic in Banda Aceh.

"Instead, we looked at nearby airfields and the Malaysian [defense attaché officer] suggested we consider Langkawi," he concluded.

Another challenge facing the group was arriving before the higher headquarters was fully operational. Samuels said the SOG's unique capabilities allowed it to move into Thailand and begin delivering aid before Joint Task Force-536 had arrived.

"We knew the commander's intent, so we flew missions out of Bangkok for several days while policies were refined and staffs formed," Samuels said. "Shortly thereafter, we relocated to Malaysia to do the same for Indonesia."

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(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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