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Operation Christmas Drop showcases HA/DR Training

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Melissa K. Mekpongsatorn
  • 374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules crews from Yokota Air Base, Japan, launched the final missions of Operation Christmas Drop 2015 Dec. 15 officially completing this year's operation with 100 percent of bundles on target.


Since Dec. 8, C-130 crews from Yokota's 36th Airlift Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force and Japan Air Self-Defense Force worked together on humanitarian aid/disaster relief training while spreading goodwill and Christmas joy throughout the Federated States of Micronesia, Northern Marianas and the Republic of Palau.


This was the first time the three nations trained alongside one another, executing 22 missions and flying 105.8 hours to provide critical supplies to 56 Micronesian islands impacting about 20,000 people covering 1.8 million square miles.


"Our ability to interoperate with our allies and partners is critical," said Lt. Col. Andrew Campbell, 36th AS commander. "This kind of training and teamwork provides the foundation upon which we can work together in peacetime and crisis while addressing broader shared interests across the region."


Together, aircrews trained for HA/DR using low-cost, low-altitude airdrops on unsurveyed drop zones. This was an opportunity for the Japanese to hone their skill while working with the U.S. and Australian aviators, and provided a new technical skillset for the RAAF. The 36th AS provided observers and advisers onboard both JASDF and RAAF aircraft, while the JASDF and RAAF had observers onboard U.S. C-130s as well.


"Part of the importance of contributing to Operation Christmas Drop is the fact we are building on the relationships with the U.S. Air Force and the JASDF," said RAAF squad leader Christopher George Bassingthwaihte. "It's incredibly important for us to operate together, so that if a contingency or humanitarian crisis arises we can come together and pull our resources, and if we have done this before we will be able to do so much better."


One hundred bundles were successfully dropped to islands across the three objective areas. Each bundle contained donated items such as clothing, food, fish hooks, fishing line and other goods collected by the Operation Christmas Drop private organization and Airman at Andersen AFB.


Some of the islands are so remote that they may only get one or two supply shipments via boat per year. According to Bruce Best, Pacific Basin Telehealth Resource Center, Pacific program coordinator, "Christmas Drop is the most important day of the year for them, this is the biggest thing going on."


Best has been volunteering his time to help Operation Christmas Drop for the last 34 years, dedicating countless hours before and during Operation Christmas Drop to coordinate air drops between islanders and the 374th AW's mission planning cell (also known by its mission name, "North Pole Ops") via high frequency radio. He ensured islanders knew when they would receive their bundles, provided safety instructions and relayed back to the aircrews what identifying markers island residents put on the drop zones.


Every part of the Operation Christmas Drop mission is carefully planned with Best playing a pivotal role in ensuring the mission planning and execution was successful.


Each island that receives a bundle has their own unique way of deciding what they will do with the items inside. On the first day of drops, call sign SANTA 11, aircrews dropped two bundles with more than 800 pounds of supplies and toys to the island of Fais, in the Federated States of Micronesia.


The island has one main Chief, Chief Louis Mangtau, who governs three small villages. Holding a crucial position among his people, the chief was the first and only person to open the dropped bundles. He then sorted through the contents and made three piles, as villagers watched and waited patiently. Each pile was then given to the head of each village to determine who gets what -- except for certain coveted goods such as fishing line, hooks, and fins, which were distributed by the chief himself to those in need.


The process is well organized on Fais to make sure everything is divided fairly. While supplies inside the box are key and the toys fun for families, the parachute is said to be the most important item on the bundle. Islanders use it for a variety of applications, from covering their canoes to improving their roofing.


According Chief Mangtau, the church donates all the food for the island's holiday dinner, a time when all villages come together to eat and sing Christmas songs. He said the airdrops are enjoyable for the entire island and is an event they look forward to every year.


The anticipated Christmas dinner would not be possible without the hundreds of volunteers, donations, the copious amount of maintenance hours and coordination with international partners.


Though the U.S., RAAF and JASDF all had their fair share of challenges from the severe weather of a tropical depression to aircraft maintenance and engine replacements, the hard work and dedication from then entire team made Operation Christmas Drop 2015 a resounding success.

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