Rare C-17 landing at Wheeler part of renewed focus on Pacific

A C-17 aircraft from the 535th Airlift Squadron at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam prepares for a landing Wheeler Army Airfield, Monday, Dec. 16. The C-17's arrival was part of a validation exercise for the 25th Infantry Division contingency response force mission.

A big Air Force C-17 cargo jet flew over Mililani on Monday toward the Wai­anae Range, banked in a tight turn and came in for the first landing in at least a decade — or maybe ever — at Wheeler Army Airfield, officials said.

The training — including the pickup of two Humvees and about 35 soldiers — was part of the 25th Infantry Division's new role as a "contingency response force" ready to deploy helicopters and troops anywhere in the Pacific in 24 hours.

The landing on Wheeler's 5,600-foot runway was a test of piloting skill and a sign of increased Army training with the Air Force and Navy as the latter two services seek to refine an "Air-Sea Battle" concept that some experts say is aimed at an increasingly threatening China.

The Army, noting its lengthy role in the Pacific, is fighting for a continued stake as the Pentagon cuts budgets.

Army Maj. Gen. Gary Cheek appeared at a congressional hearing in October — which was billed as being an Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps discussion — and said some might find it surprising that an Army general would be speaking about Air-Sea Battle.

"But I would frankly tell you that for the Army, we look forward to any and every opportunity to partner with our joint brothers and sisters for operations," Cheek said.

Hawaii-based Army pilots recently landed OH-58D Kiowa Warrior and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters aboard the cruiser USS Lake Erie out of Pearl Harbor.

Last June, meanwhile, Navy divers with SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 practiced water insertions and other techniques using Black Hawks from the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade out of Wheeler, the Army said.

Lt. Col. Jeff Howell, director of the 25th Infantry Division's "future operations" section, said Monday's training with the Air Force was part of a validation exercise for the contingency response force.

"We have a request from our higher headquarters to have a force … to go anywhere in the Pacific (area of operation)," Howell said. "And right now the focus is on being able to go anywhere in (that area) within 24 hours. It's a tailorable, scalable package, meaning that we have forces that can go do security missions, we can go do medical missions, engineering missions, etc."

Howell said the Army doesn't "get into specifics about what size the forces are."

The contingency response force "is something new" to the 25th Division with its focus again on the Pacific after years of war duty to Iraq and Af­ghani­stan, How­ell said.

In September, Black Hawk helicopters were transported in a C-17 from Hickam to Hilo as part of the aviation brigade's preparedness for the emergency response role.

Howell said the duty rotates internally within the 25th Division and among other units within U.S. Army Pacific and I Corps, based in Washington state, which is designated for Pacific duty.

The soldiers and Humvees made a short trip Monday in the 535th Airlift Squadron's C-17 — to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

A Wheeler safety officer said older Air Force cargo carriers including C-5 Galaxies and C-141 Starlifters couldn't land on the relatively short airfield, which is primarily used for helicopters. By comparison, even the Marine Corps base runway at Kaneohe Bay is longer at 7,771 feet.

According to aircraft maker Boeing, a C-17 Globemaster III with a 160,000-pound payload can take off from a 7,600-foot airfield, fly 2,400 nautical miles and land on a small, austere airfield in 3,000 feet or less.

During testing, a C-17 was able to take off and land in less than 1,400 feet with a payload of 44,000 pounds.

Air Force Lt. Col. David Milner, a pilot on the C-17 flight into Wheeler, said the mission "was a great opportunity for us to support the 25th Infantry Division" and a "phenomenal opportunity for us to strengthen our joint military partnerships on the island."

Lt. Col. Derrick Cheng, a 25th Division spokes­man, said he wasn't sure whether the C-17 training into and out of Wheeler would be repeated.

"I can't tell you how often this could occur, but obviously it gives us an opportunity to train in this capability that we haven't done at least within recent history," Cheng said.

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