CLARK AIR BASE, Philippines — Flying over a village that had been slammed by Typhoon Haiyan, Osprey crew chief Sgt. William Kaker saw a big Philippines flag staked out on the ground with a sign that read “God Help Us.”
The crew marked the area for a supply drop.
“We have gone to some rural areas looking for open fields to get into,” said Kaker, 28, of Murfreesboro, Tenn. “We don’t see anybody at first, but by the time we land, people come out by the hundreds out of nowhere.”
The scene has been repeated many times since a dozen Ospreys arrived from Okinawa days after the Nov. 8 disaster that is believed to have killed thousands of people and devastated large swaths of the sprawling archipelago of more than 7,000 islands.
It has been the perfect opportunity for the V-22 Ospreys, whose arrival on Okinawa months ago was greeted by protests, to prove their versatility and value.
Marines from Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 262 — “the Flying Tigers” — are working at full capacity to deliver aid, ferry passengers and survey damage with eight Ospreys. Four others are here from its sister unit, Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265.
The Ospreys, which use wings to cruise and tiltrotors to land and take off vertically, were able to fly 800 miles from Okinawa to the Philippines and start delivering relief supplies, according to squadron operations officer Maj. Andy Gonzalez, 35, of Long Beach, Calif.
The tiltrotors’ range — twice that of conventional helicopters — gives them the ability to fly out of Clark Air Base, hundreds of miles from the disaster zone, and land at numerous locations.
“The benefit of the Osprey is that, while the focus is in the immediate vicinity of Tacloban (the city that bore the brunt of the typhoon), our aircraft can range wider,” Gonzalez said. “We can touch areas that wouldn’t be reached by helicopters.”
Helicopters involved in the relief effort are dropping supplies within a 10- to 20-mile radius of Tacloban, but the Ospreys can range much further, he said.
The Ospreys’ unique features have created some confusion at the airport in Tacloban. Even though the V-22 can drop out of the sky like a helicopter, its only allowed to land on the flightline, while conventional helos are allow to land on the grass next to the runway.
Crew members say they want the Osprey to be treated like a fixed-wing aircraft when commuting and like a helicopter once it arrives at its destination.
During the 2005 tsunami relief effort in Indonesia, which Gonzalez participated in, the Marines didn’t have Ospreys and had to use ships as bases to access the disaster zone, which, fortunately, was limited to the coast, he said.
“The other day they sent us to landing zones that were 40 miles from Tacloban, and we can go further than that,” Gonzalez said.
Each morning, the aircraft load up on as much as 5,000 pounds of relief supplies at Clark, in the shadow of Mount Pinatubo, and head for the disaster zone 350 miles away.
Soaring to 10,000 feet and flying at 280 knots, the trip takes about 90 minutes. In the disaster zone most of the flying is below 3,000 feet and at speeds slower than 230 knots to save fuel.
The aircraft are moving supplies and personnel from hubs such as Tacloban and Guiuan – where large aircraft are delivering aid in bulk - to remote sites that might not be accessible by vehicles, Gonzalez said.
Sometimes crews fly to particular villages. Other times they cruise over specific areas, looking for landing zones and people in need, he said.
All the Ospreys need to drop supplies is an open area that’s big enough for the aircraft, although crews watch out for hazards such as boggy ground, overhead wires and towers, he said.
“Some of the sites are right next to the water so they are still damp from flooding,” he said. “It is probably not a good idea to put a 50,000-pound aircraft on muddy ground.”
Osprey pilot Capt. Jason Snook, 31, of Cumming, Ga., said he’s been flying daily 12-hour missions delivering supplies to multiple landing zones.
In one devastated village, Snook and his crew evacuated an American and his family who they found in a crowd of survivors, he said.
On Monday, pilots Maj. David Sherman, 39, of Hillsdale, Mich., and Capt. Adrian Evangelista, 30, of the Marianas Islands, lifted off from Clark in an Osprey full of relief supplies.
Less than two hours’ later they were hovering over the Leyte Gulf above a town called Marabut that looked like it had been hit by a nuclear bomb. Virtually every coconut tree on nearby hills had been knocked over, and what used to be a small fishing village looked like a giant pile of toothpicks.
The Osprey swooped in to an open space on the waterfront, and hundreds of Filipinos emerged from the devastated landscape to cart away boxes of food.
When the Osprey passed over another devastated island, the crew searched in vain for a landing zone. Most of the buildings were piles of rubble, and the storm had thrown several large fishing boats into the coconut groves. No survivors emerged.
“Man, that island got hit hard,” Evangelista said as the aircraft departed.
It didn’t take long to find another place to drop aid. A grassy field near Culasi village was just large enough to land.
Village chairman Allan Naputo and dozens of other survivors were overjoyed when the Marines off-loaded a stack of boxes from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Naputo said all of Culasi’s 600 residents survived the typhoon but that they welcomed the help. He handed Evangelista a scrawled wish list: “Food, a chainsaw, gasoline and a generator.”
Villages like Culasi are targets of opportunity for the Ospreys.
“We are going out and asking people what they want,” Sherman said “Some already have water and just want food and medicine. We are often the first ones there, so we have to report back what people need.”
The Osprey landed several times at Guiuan, an airfield where C-130 cargo planes have been dropping large volumes of food and water.
A team of 10 U.S. Special Operations combat controllers were there waiting for a ride to an area where they planned to establish an airstrip so that the C-130s could land more supplies. It took two trips to haul the soldiers and thousands of pounds of gear, including an all-terrain vehicle.
The Osprey also set down on the deck of the USS George Washington aircraft carrier off Samar. Sailors loaded food and water on board while the aircraft refueled.
There were other stops — at Tacloban, to drop supplies, and the carrier again, for more fuel - before a final visit to Guiuan, where about 25 typhoon victims — including several children and mothers clutching babies — waited for a ride to Manila.
Darkness fell, and the pilots donned email@example.com goggles for the final leg back to Clark.
“We probably flew 1,000 miles today,” Sherman said, knowing he’d be doing it all over again the next day.