Airlift shows value in Japan disaster

  • Published
  • By David Bedard
"Humanitarian airlift operations are of greatest and most direct benefit to the individual victims of disaster or emergency.

For them, the rapid movement of cargo or personnel can make a life-or-death difference.
But humanitarian airlift operations also benefit, as a whole, the countries to which they are directed.

They allow foreign states to retain economic and political stability in the face of sudden challenge." -- Daniel Haulman, Air Force Historical Research Agency

On a cloudy summer day in June 1948, a formation of U.S. Air Force C-47 Skytrains touched down at West Berlin's Tempelhof Airport carrying milk, flour and medicine to a city encircled by Soviet forces intent on strangling the community through the deprivation of supplies.

Nearly 72 years later, a 517th Airlift Squadron C-17 Globemaster III landed at Yokota Air Base, Japan, disembarking Japan Ground Self-Defense Force troops and vehicles in support of Operation Tomodachi, the effort to bring humanitarian aid to a country recently stricken by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake.

In the seven decades dividing the Berlin Airlift and Operation Tomodachi, U.S. military airlift has been asked to support dozens of humanitarian efforts worldwide, and airframe technology has improved by several orders of magnitude.

C-47s ferrying supplies to West Berlin were motivated by two piston-driven propeller engines and could carry three tons of cargo.

By contrast, a C-17 flies under the power of four jet engines, carries 85 tons of cargo and is piloted using a digital "glass" cockpit.

The C-17s belonging to the 517th Airlift Squadron are well placed to support military and humanitarian operations throughout the northern hemisphere.

Growing up, I remember tracing my finger across the classic Mercator projection map of the world, which unravels our globular world and flattens it for ease of viewing.

The problem was, the map gave me the impression Alaska was close only to the former Soviet Union and the North Pole.

But if you take a globe and turn it so Alaska sits at the top, you will see the state is centrally located between East Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

This phenomenon, identified by airpower pioneer Billy Mitchell in 1935, is what makes Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson so valuable as a base for airlift operations north of the equator. The C-17 is the best airframe in the world to support JBER's location advantage.

Developed from a 1980s project aimed at finding a replacement for the C-130 Hercules which could carry large cargo - like an M-1 Abrams Tank - and land on short, unimproved airstrips, the C-17 bridged the gap between the the C-130 and the large C-5 Galaxy.

Though the C-5 Galaxy carries more cargo than a C-17, it cannot land on austere runways, forcing a C-5 crew to transload its cargo to a C-130 for movement to forward locations.

The C-17 offers a cradle to grave air transport solution unmatched in any other airframe.

It has the range to deploy to remote overseas locations and the short takeoff and landing capability to get supplies where they are needed the most.

This is a capability which cannot be replicated by civilian aircraft, often used by U.S. Transportation Command to augment military airlift operations.

Take for instance the Boeing 747-400 jumbo cargo jet. Though it has a cargo capacity of more than 120 tons, it doesn't have the capability to land on short airfields nor does it sit close to the ground like a C-17 does, requiring special load handling equipment to extract cargo from the 747's swinging nose door - a handy feature not found on most civilian aircraft.

Though designed primarily to deliver military cargo and to drop dozens of paratroopers from the sky, the C-17 is nonetheless well-suited for supporting humanitarian missions in Japan.

No doubt as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami, much of Japan's formidable ground and sea transportation network is destroyed, damaged or temporarily disabled.

JSDF, U.S. and allied military airlift will continue to be crucial in getting supplies to Japanese who need them to weather the country's greatest crisis since World War II.

It is no surprise a 517th Airlift Squadron C-17 was the first Globemaster on the ground supporting Operation Tamodachi, considering JBER's strategic location and the readiness of 3rd Wing Airmen to support full-spectrum operations worldwide.

Additionally, the recent move of the Alaska National Guard's 144th Airlift Squadron from Kulis Air National Guard Base to JBER brings National Guard C-130s to the base with their capability to offer airlift support to remote Alaska locations and for contingency operations anywhere in the world.

(Editor's note: David Bedard has three years' experience working in military transportation and deployments.)