WRIGHT-PATTERSON AFB — In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, the monster storm that left a path of destruction throughout the Caribbean and Florida, many are lending a helping hand in the cleanup and efforts to get life back to normal for those affected.
What do Jeff Ciesla, a pilot for United Airlines who resides in Centerville, Dustin Johnson, a Miami Beach resident who flies for American Airlines, and Cody Green, a student at Ohio State University have in common?
While they spend most of their time at the “day job,” they are also Lt. Col. Jeff Ciesla, Maj. Dustin Johnson, and Staff Sgt. Cody Green, United States Air Force Reserve. All are attached to the 445th Airlift Squadron base at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. All are members of the team that operates nine C-17 Globemaster II cargo aircraft.
During the recent spate of hurricanes, members of the 445th ALW have been kept busy. The C-17, designed to carry some 160,000 pounds of cargo and able to take off and land on short, unimproved runways, is the perfect vehicle for disaster relief.
Among the missions tasked to the 445th in recent days was a flight from Wright-Patterson AFB to pick up approximately 90,000 pounds of equipment along with a team of Contigency Response Element members commanded by Maj. John Herbert at McGuire AFB in New Jersey, then deliver them to McDill AFB in Florida.
A staff member of the Piqua Daily Call was aboard Tuesday’s relief flight. We received the alert call at 1 a.m. on Tuesday morning, with orders to be at the base by 3 a.m. Included with the instructions was to pack an overnight bag, food, and a sleeping bag. Clearly, we were to be prepared for a lengthy trip, if necessary.
Our crew had been at the base, on standby for 33 hours, waiting their turn to fly a mission.
We were bused by 3:30 out to our aircraft, where members of the 445th were hard at work getting the aircraft ready for takeoff.
Our C-17 took to the skies at 4:45 a.m. and we were soon at 33,000 feet, eastbound at .78 Mach (approximately 275 knots).
With the sky still dark, just a faint glow of orange beginning to appear in the east, we landed at McGuire AFB, near Trenton, N.J.
Awaiting our aircraft were several vehicles carrying a variety of cargo. The largest piece as a heavy-duty forklift tractor. The machine was driven into the cavernous cargo hold and parked in its designated position, followed by a number of other smaller pieces of machinery and palatalized cargo.
Responsible for loading the aircraft was Staff Sgt. Cody Green, Loadmaster. In order to ensure that the C-17 remains flyable, each piece of equipment is weighed and place precisely in order to keep the center of gravity on the enormous airplane.
Fuel tanks were topped off in New Jersy since fuel availability in Florida was doubtful following Hurricane Irma.
We were soon on the runway, pilots Lt. Col. Jeff Ciesla and Maj. Dustin Johnson applying full-power in order to get our 500,000 pounds of airplane and cargo into the sky.
Our flight path took us south, along the east coast of the United States. As we approached South Carolina and beyond, the effects of Hurricane Irma became apparent as signs of flooding passed by below us. The weather was overcast as we flew along the fringes of the remains of Irma.
The skies cleared as we arrived over Florida. From our altitude of more than five miles above the earth, there was little sign of the powerful hurricane that passed through only 48 hours earlier.
By 11:30 a.m., we were on the ground at McDill AFB, just outside Tampa. Upon exiting the aircraft, all appeared to be normal. We were even greeted by the usual Florida summer heat and humidity.
In spite of the appearance, the hurricane had been felt in Tampa. Staff Sgt. Brittany Liddon, assigned to public affairs at McDill, was taking it all in stride. She is a native Floridian, so Irma was not her first hurricane. Liddon said that their base, which is surrounded on three sides by water, was evacuated Friday morning. On Monday, the base was occupied by “mission essential” personnel only and had just reopened to normal operations on Tuesday.
Offloading the aircraft took less than two hours and we were soon headed north toward Wright-Patt, once again reminded of the reason for our mission as we flew through the remnants of Hurricane Irma, noticeable only by the heavy cloud cover and a bit of a bumpy ride.
At 3:30 p.m., we touched down and taxied to where we had departed, just 11 hours earlier.
As we exited the aircraft, another crew came aboard and began the task of preparing the C-17 for another mission. Our crew went to be debriefed, followed by some well-earned rest.
Members of the 445th ALW have been flying support missions to Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean. They will continue to fly wherever and whenever needed.
Reach Mike Ullery at (937) 451-3335