JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii --
Commercial flights across the globe began to disappear as COVID-19 spread, disrupting the Pacific Air Forces Air Postal Squadron, or AIRPS mission and their main way of delivering mail. Despite the global lockdown and restrictions on flights, AIRPS worked together with unlikely partners to deliver more than two million pounds of mail.
AIRPS relies primarily on commercial flights, to transport mail around the world, but when international travel waned, the squadron had to innovate to deliver to Korea, Australia and Japan. In some cases, packages started to stack up creating a backlog of medicine, baby formula, prescriptions, medical supplies and parts all needing to be delivered.
The 125 person squadron could have easily decided to wait for the pandemic to end and let things get “back to normal” citing conditions out of their hands but instead worked tirelessly to provide those critical packages across the area of responsibility.
“They understand that with conditions as they are right now, and some locations being somewhat in isolation, that getting mail is not just about morale, which alone is hugely important, but it is also about getting essential things to people,” said Lt. Col. Todd Paciencia, AIRPS commander. “Even after a really long, challenging day, our team is smiling knowing the impact they have had.”
With restrictions on flights occurring, like in Korea, where any Korea-originating flight couldn’t land in certain countries, they were sometimes left with few commercial options. In this case the Army and Air Mobility Command, or AMC, worked together with AIRPS to come up with a solution— reworking Army ground transportation so mail could be delivered to Osan Air Base, Korea. From there, AMC trained the AIRPS team on palletizing to put mail on a weekly military flight to Yokota, allowing for mail to move through Tokyo and beyond as needed. This has been no easy feat with multiple moving parts.
Paciencia credits the innovation of his team and their focus on continuing to find new ways to keep the mail moving.
Whether it’s working with commercial carriers to utilize whatever capacity is available— meaning daily changes in carriers or flights—AIRPS is moving mountains of mail dynamically in an ever-changing COVID-19 global pandemic.
And while AIRPS was solving the mail problem in Korea, Australia had lost all Sydney flights causing the total loss of all mail into Australia for Airmen and Marines until they worked closely with airlines to re-gain air access. With such a large continent to support, the problems didn’t stop there.
In Alice Springs, Australia, a remote town known for its location in the middle of the Australian outback, members truly rely on mail for essentials. Flights inbound were cut to once a week, not even enough to deliver all the mail coming in, drastically impending the ability to cater to service members. Fortunately, AMC at Richmond, Australia, assisted to transport mail from there to Sydney to be palletized and flown on AMC flights. AIRPS resolve to deliver precious cargo continued, planning a lengthy 30-hour surface movement from Adelaide to Alice Springs— almost half the continent.
With some mail going on ground transportation while some is flown, AIRPS learned many new skills like palletizing.
“Our teams had never had to palletize before, and now thanks to the training from the Air Mobility Squadrons, they’ve been starting to create ways to do it more efficiently,” Paciencia said. “Our teams processing the mail have done an outstanding job of, despite all of the constant changes, making sure the mail gets from Point A to Point B while maintaining tracking and routing accuracy.”
Lastly, in Japan, a public health emergency was declared which left only one commercial flight from Tokyo to Misawa, with carriers having to prioritizing passengers and cargo before mail. A backlog of thousands of letters and packages built very quickly with customs being in Tokyo.
Working through Japanese laws, airline requirements and contracts, the Navy suddenly emerged as an option. A C-12 from Naval Air Facility Misawa flew mail over five flights spanning three days.
“Without the help and support of our teammates from multiple units and bases we would not have been able to clear this backlog as quickly as we did,” said Master Sgt. Erin Johnson, transportation flight chief. “I think Steve Jobs said it best ‘Great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people.’”
The Navy provided flights for three days moving hundreds of pieces of mail to service members at Misawa. Allowing higher priority mail to the base and buying time for AIRPS to work with the logistics readiness squadrons at both Yokota and Misawa Air Bases, the 36th Airlift Squadron and 374th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron to move the entirety of the back-log on a mail-packed C-130 generated for a combined mail and training mission.
“Across all locations, the support has been incredible,” Paciencia said. “Between base Logistics Readiness Squadrons, Contracting Squadrons, the Army and Navy and support personnel, they’ve all worked together so incredibly.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic begins to slow down, the team plans to take their lessons learned and build a detailed contingency plan identifying how to be more efficient to save resources and money for future crises. They plan to take the skills they learned, like palletizing, and continue to build upon them for the future thanks to the sister-services, agencies and support personnel.
“The one-team mentality I have seen between our Airmen and our partners during this unique time, to support Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines that are far from home – it’s exactly why I serve,” said Paciencia. “Our Airmen are an often unseen support behind the mail, and their motivation, perseverance, and creativity in this unique time to support their fellow service members has been inspiring. Saying I am proud of them is an understatement.”