Air Force airdrops bring early Christmas to Micronesia
December 10, 2015
ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam — The U.S. Air Force is once again playing the role of Santa to people living in some of the most remote locations in the world.
Airmen from the Yokota Air Base’s 374th Airlift Wing have spent the last week in the back of their C-130s, dropping much-needed supplies to island villages and atolls scattered throughout Micronesia. In its 64th year, the holiday humanitarian mission has become known as Operation Christmas Drop.
The supplies, which benefit more than 20,000 people in the Northern Marianas Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau, are collected through donations.
“When we heard that these people needed our help, we did everything we could get some toys and food collected at our school,” said Lolaine Arriola, a ninth-grader from Okkodo High School on Guam. Even though the students only had a few days to collect items, “we still filled a few boxes of goods and got a few classmates to come to the base to help pack the bundles,” Arriola said.
This year, the Yokota crew has had help from the Japan Air Self-Defense Force and Royal Australian Air Force, making this Christmas Drop a multinational effort.
“We’re going to be covering about two-thirds of the continental United States to put in perspective how far these islands are from each other,” said Brig. Gen. Andrew Toth, the 36th Air Wing commander. “Every one of the boxes we’re sending is full of donated items from all over the world and rigging them with expired parachutes the Army can no longer use for human use.
“We’re sending 88 bundles of these donated items to 56 islands with three air forces. Our goal last year was to make that the biggest Christmas Drop ever. This year, our goal was to make this the biggest Christmas Drop ever, and we’re well on our way to accomplishing that.”
To the villagers on the receiving end, Operation Christmas Drop is a life-sustaining gift. In the spirit of Christmas, there are — of course — children’s toys.
But there are also items that are nearly impossible for villagers to obtain, such as hammers, fishing equipment, coolers, sandals. Items taken for granted in many parts of the world, such as pulleys and spare parts for wheelbarrows, are among the most wished for supplies on many islands.
“Nothing goes to waste,” said John Gil, from Faliyow Village on the island of Fais.
Gil, like most men, contributes to the island community in any way possible. One day, he’ll be on a construction project, the next he may be harvesting bananas and follow it by diving without so much as a snorkel to hunt fish.
“The wood the box comes in, the cardboard, the styrofoam, plastic bags, parachute, nylon ropes – I mean everything has a use on our island. It’s a beautiful day every year for us,” he said.
The airmen involved in the airdrop also get something out of the mission: training.
The C-130 aircrews will deliver nearly 40,000 pounds of humanitarian aid throughout the week, executing more than 20 airdrops. The aircraft fly over each village at an altitude around 300 feet and let each bundle parachute down for about 10 seconds.
The only cost comes in $10 worth of leftover plywood, nylon rope, some duct tape and the cost of shipping parachutes deemed unsafe for human use, but still perfectly serviceable for safely landing goods. Lt. Col. Andrew Campbell of Yokota’s 374th Airlift Wing, says a typical airdrop bundle costs about $400 in materials.
“This is what we call a low-cost, low-altitude training exercise,” said Campbell.
The lessons learned from previous Christmas Drops were put to the test following the Nepal earthquake in April. Though the Air Force was not requested to perform similar humanitarian airdrops in remote locations of Nepal, the low-cost bundle builds of sandwiching a cardboard box between plywood platforms and tying them down for quick, cost-effective transport became an essential method to deliver aid to earthquake victims.