The First Few Days: Meeting the Challenge of Getting Started on Philippine Relief

2013-11-22 by Robbin Laird

The devastation from the Typhoon which directly struck the Philippines left in its wake a patch quilt of infrastructure from which to start a relief effort.

The Marines on Okinawa, Japan because of their integrated force structure and forward location were able to go early and to set in motion the process to follow.

The Osprey and KC-130J (teaming) was important for this effort. The KC-130Js provided air to air refueling and path finding creating the conditions for the Osprey to operate at extended ranges with increased time of station throughout the Philippines.

With fuel initially only available in Manilla and Clark, the teaming and extra time on station allowed the Ospreys and KC-130s to conduct multiple insertions in remote areas of relief workers and other elements necessary to set up an infrastructure for a much larger relief effort to follow.

The Oppreys being refueled by a KC-130J. The Marines twin the assets to provide for greater range and endurance in the mission. Credit Photo: Lt. Col Brown

The Oppreys being refueled by a KC-130J. The Marines twin the assets to provide for greater range and endurance in the mission. Credit Photo: Lt. Col Brown 

The first five days was the key focus of the initial insertion force, and because of the reach and range of the Osprey, the Marines were able to operate throughout the island chain.

And the reality of the island chain is important in this regard, as it is clearly not a land mass, so considerations of support for the Ospreys – fuel etc. – as well as locations of supplies and the complexity of moving people and those supplies was significantly enhanced by the geographical reality of an island chain.

In a follow up to our discussion with Lt. Col. “Sniper” Brown, the CO of VMM-262, we had a chance to talk with his colleague Major A. “Papi” Guzman

According to Lt. Col. Brown, Guzman is his assistant operations officer and the two of them flew lead and wing together interchangeably for the 1st three days. We had the chance to revisit from the Major’s perspectives some of the key realities of those first few days of the relief effort.

The Major noted that the MEB flew out on the 10th; and they received their diplomatic clearances on the 11th and then departed for the relief mission. The assessment team from the MEB went first and the airplanes followed.

The first point underscored by the Major was the need to get the planes initially to Manila and Clark Air Base to get a process started on October 11th.  “The next day we started executing the relief mission.”

And in a relief effort, a common problem which was evident in the Philippines as well is the need to deal with missing ports and airfields and leveraging what remains.  This creates in turn a choke-point management problem of the first order.

“Every plane that was available started flowing into Tacloban. This was a major problem given the absence of real air traffic management and the tarmac getting loaded up with supplies as well.  Supplies, workers, planes, and congestion were evident on the fields where we were to stage from.  Everything was in flux. Although a good thing to do, we realized it was a dangerous effort as well.  We needed to get the right crew elements together to execute the mission and to do so in the presence of devastation only a Typhoon can deliver.

This in turn created significant fuel problems, as we would have to hover prior to landing as much as an hour plus (because of the ground congestion), which meant that fuel was always a challenge.

And clearly without the KC-130Js we could not have done the operation.  I was concerned about being a stranded airplane on a remote island in case of a landing emergency. The KC-130Js were critical to us, prior to the arrival of the USS Washington, which we now use as an alternative fuel base for our Osprey operations. We did not have a running FARP (Forward Air Refueling Point) until the 4th day of the operation.”

It was clear that not knowing where your Exxons are located is a key aspect of managing air operations in such a large scale relief effort; and managing the choke point as well, because there is no point to flowing through more people and supplies if the surviving ports and airfields are simply becoming dumping grounds and making it more and more difficult to operate from.

After having landed at Clark, they had to sort out where they would go the next day.

“The situation was very unclear. Where were we to go, with which supplies and with which purpose?  Intelligence was completely missing and communications were down.  We relied on the CO’s international blackberry for the first two days for our planning and communication needs.  We had no other connectivity.

We had to work our taskings through the blackberry. We were ready to go but where.  I reached out to a fellow Marine and he reached out to family on Facebook and gave us some information about areas we might consider going to. And we relied on the local newspaper to identify one of our first locations to visit, namely Guian peninsula.

But prior to doing the school field delivery, they flew to Tacloban airfield which was to become a key operational center for the air side of the relief effort.

“The area was so devastated and we had limited ground support so we flew our first two Ospreys there with senior officers in charge of each plane and flew in slowly on rotor because we were not sure of the terrain or the ground conditions for landing.  We had to devise a way for us to get into the airfield.

We remained visual with each other because the weather was so bad initially. I was amazed at the level of destruction we saw as we came in. Although we had four aircraft available, for risk mitigation we felt that only two planes should go in initially.”

Next up was the flight to Guian peninsula.  “We identified a devasted area by reading the Philippine Examiner and saw what we thought was a picture of a soccer field, but later would discover it was a school yard.”

We asked the Major what the field looked like as they began to touch base.

“The area was completely devastated and all we saw was rubble.  It was a never ending path of destruction.  My eyes scanned with total amazement.  I would see images of families and little kids running around in the streets as we passed over. At first, the area looked deserted. But after we landed hundreds of children and older people came out from under the rubble or from cardboard boxes to approach the plane.

You really do not imagine that many people in such a devastated area, coming out from the woodwork. And older gentlemen came up to the plane and shunted the children away from the plane so we could safely shut it down. If we had not had the newspaper we would not have had a good idea where to start the relief area. ”

We pointed out that the plane must have seen like a science fiction object to folks who had never seen it before and asked what happened when they started flying locals on the plane.

“Like most first time flyers, they were amazed when we transition from rotor to propeller mode and become a plane.  The crew chiefs noted that eyes open wide open when the acceleration takes place and smiles came on the passengers faces. Normally we hold 24 in the back; here we had more than that.  I remember we put a man with babies on both shoulders into a jump seat.”

The Major also emphasized the challenge of flying in these conditions.  “Normally we do 3 hours of flight planning for each hour of flight; needless to say we were doing 0 hours of flight planning in these conditions on a contingency task.”

We also discussed the coming contribution of the F-35B in this type of operation.  With the F-35B the Marines will have a C2 and ISR capability to contribute significantly as well to this type of operation.

By getting a five day jump, it was then possible to shape the infrastructure for the next phase.  And by the USMC approach, the first five days was an operational relief effort PLUS putting in place the infrastructure for the next phase.

When we interviewed the Major it was several days into the relief operation and he was having his first day off.  We asked him: “looking back what did it feel like emotionally?”

According to the Major:

“We were flying in a very confused and difficult situation.  We clearly are concerned with our own capability to operate and at the same time this is just a means to an end.  The end is to get relief to people who need, move in relief workers, bring supplies and move locals as necessary.

Virtually none of these folks had ever flown on an Osprey before, but willingly did so in these circumstances.  When we would open the back we would see many women and children crying with no doubt relief but regret and having now to face an uncertain future.  It was difficult to look at this and not have your own emotional reaction.

But it is rewarding. You go through all this training and now you get to make a difference.”

What the Major was experiencing was Thanksgiving a bit early in the month of November; the sci fi platform was working with others to start the Philippines towards that future.

When doing disaster relief, professionals will tell you that time is your most precious commodity.

The Osprey-KC-130J pairing bought time for the current HA/DR mission. 

By having the pairing, the USMC team was able to move in rapidly and prepare for the insertion of additional forces and aide teams.

How much is 3-5 days of additional time worth in putting in motion a relief effort?

 Major A. “Papi” Guzman took the following pictures.

The video above provides a good sense of what the terrain looks like several days AFTER the rescue effort has been mounted.

Marines with 3D Marine Expeditionary Brigade in support of Joint Task Force – 505, conduct airfield operations and humanitarian assistance, in Tacloban, Republic of the Philippines, 18 November 2013.

U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific maintains significant capability forward deployed throughout the Asia-Pacific region ready to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. 

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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