Tech. Sgt. Lynn Morelly, 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron C-17 loadmaster, watches meals parachute to the ground during an airdrop. (Air Force)
Capt. Erica Stooksbury, 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron C-17 pilot, talks with her co-pilot, 1st Lt. Mark Benischek, during an airdrop mission. (Sgt. Vernon Young Jr. / Air Force)
One C-17 and two C-130s flew through the night Aug. 8 to unload the first of several drops of food and water on Mount Sinjar in Iraq, where starving and dehydrated refugees were stranded by threat of death at the hands of Islamic State militants if they descended.
It was the first humanitarian airdrop over Iraq since the war ended in 2011. And for the crews, the importance of the mission didn’t fully set in until after landing.
“It was quite an eye-opener to see the results of the drop on CNN when we got back, and even more so to hear none other than the president of the United States on TV the next day talking about our mission to the press and the American people,” Maj. Stephen Holt, C-130 pilot with the 737th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, told Air Force Times.
Amid airstrikes and intelligence flights, the Air Force dropped humanitarian aidfor the refugees. President Obama said Aug. 14 that after a week of flights, dropping 114,000 meals and 35,000 gallons of fresh water, it is unlikely the U.S. will need to continue humanitarian airdrops. However, Pentagon officials said the option remains open.
“The situation on the mountain has greatly improved, and Americans should be very proud of their efforts,” Obama said of the mission crews. “Because of the skill and professionalism of our military, and the generosity of our people, we broke the [Islamic State] siege of Mount Sinjar; we helped vulnerable people reach safety; and we helped save many innocent lives.”
At the height of the crisis, Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets, Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16 Falcons and MQ-1B Predators executed targeted airstrikes to protect crews conducting the humanitarian airdrops. The military also flew more than 60 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sorties over Iraq to follow the situation in Sinjar, where the refugees fled to escape the militants, and other areas to help Kurdish forces secure their positions, Lt. Gen. William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, said Aug. 11. The flights were both manned and unmanned, including Predators.
'Most gratifying part'
The weeklong effort kicked off Aug. 8 with the three Air Force aircraft, carrying 72 bundles of supplies, with 5,300 gallons of drinking water and 8,000 meals ready to eat. The three aircraft dropped their cargo in less than 15 minutes.
Planning for the first mission began after the State Department received a formal request from Iraq. The assignment eventually trickled down to C-130 crews with the 737th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron and C-17 crews with the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, 737th commander Lt. Col. Johnstephen Boccieri said.
The crews were selected based on experience and their certifications for airdrops like this, and planning went much like previous airdrops that the crews have flown in U.S. Central Command.
For this mission, the C-130 was loaded with 16 bundles of water and food.
Airmen with the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron worked with soldiers from the 11th Quartermaster Company, 264th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 82nd Sustainment Brigade to load the aircraft, according to U.S. Central Command. The aid was drawn from an existing stock of food and water that is kept in the region for distribution in a crisis.
“The mission was one drop over the area where displaced citizens could receive the aid,” Boccieri said. “To complete the flying part of the mission, aircrew members flew approximately five hours from takeoff to landing.”
C-17 aircraft commander Capt. Erica Stooksbury said the most challenging part of the mission was “integration of all the forces. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to plan the mission.”
“The humanitarian aid mission is the most gratifying part,” Stooksbury said in a Defense Department video filmed after landing. “You are able to help people up there and hopefully they can use the food we dropped.”
One of the C-17s in the first mission carried 40 bundles of MREs. each bundle weighing 800 pounds. The bundles were hooked to a computerized system to accurately drop them in an area where Yazidi refugees would be able to recover them.
“It’s very important because there’s a lot of people needing this right now,” Staff Sgt. Seth Dunworth, a C-17 loadmaster with the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, said in a video filmed before takeoff. “It’s very important. There are people starving, people dying.”
The mobility crews were escorted by Navy F/A-18 Hornets for safety on the initial airdrop, which was flown before U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft began the airstrike campaign against the Islamic State.
“My crew was very pumped to get this done correctly, and we came together great to make it happen,” Holt said. “Although we weren’t able to see the results of our drop right away, we knew that we were making an immediate, tangible difference in the lives of the refugees on that mountain.”