Hook/Flagship OUR Article
On the evening of January 11th, the Tigertails of VAW-125 were busy making final preparations for a 3-month deployment. They were loading tools and personal items onto the ship and setting up their berthing areas. They were making final financial preparations and finding people to take care of their pets. They were saying goodbye to wives, husbands, children, family, and friends that they would not see for some time. The plan was simple: embark with Carrier Air Wing 17 (CVW-17) onboard USS CARL VINSON (CVN 70) and take her around South America to her new homeport of San Diego, CA. Along the way, they would participate in exercises with partner nations in South America to maintain a spirit of cooperation with these neighbors in the Western Hemisphere. However, the Tigertails had no idea what was really in store for them over the next few weeks.
The morning of January 12th started as expected with CARL VINSON getting underway and proceeding out into the frigid Mid Atlantic. The rest of the day was spent doing flight deck drills in preparation for the carrier qualifications (CQ) that would take place the following day when the air wing would fly-out from their respective bases in the Hampton Roads area. Then, that afternoon, the Caribbean nation of Haiti was devastated by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. As the evening drew to a close, little was known about the extent of the devastation. Many onboard were wondering whether or not CARL VINSON would have anything to do with a possible relief effort. However, many could only go to bed that night with the assumption that business would go on as normal until after CQ. After all, an aircraft carrier wouldn’t go anywhere to provide relief without its aircraft, would it?
The morning of January 13th proved just how wrong this assumption was. Footage revealing the extent of the devastation in Haiti flooded every news channel shown on ship’s TV. CAPT Lindsey, CO of CARL VINSON, announced that instead of conducting CQ to bring the air wing aboard, the ship was heading south to pick up several helicopter squadrons and relief supplies from Mayport and Jacksonville, FL, and would then continue south to Haiti. While the Tigertails already onboard watched the flight deck cameras as swarms of helicopters arrived, one thought prevailed: if we are going down there without our planes, what are we going to do in all of this?
Then the direction came from RDML Branch, Commander CSG-1: get your planes from Norfolk to somewhere you can support us from shore. After much deliberation and planning, the three E-2C Hawkeyes of VAW-125 headed south to Key West on the afternoon of the 13th and then headed to U.S. NS Guantanamo Bay (GMTO), Cuba on the 14th. In the mean time, a small contingent of Sailors from the Tigertail maintenance team made their way from the ship, to Jacksonville, and eventually to GTMO. On the evening of the 14th, in less than 48 hours, the Tigertails of VAW-125 had completely moved their base of operations to GTMO and were ready to support the relief effort spearheaded by the USS CARL VINSON.
Over the next 17 days, the Tigertails averaged 4 flights a day in support of Operation UNIFIED RESPONSE over Haiti, each with an on-station time of approximately 4-5 hours. This was done with only 3 aircraft, 18 aircrew, and 35 maintainers. Due to the outstanding dedication and hard work of the Tigertail maintenance team, not a single flight was missed. ATCS James Coleman, one of the leaders of the maintenance team in Haiti, said, “The heat and the long hours made it painful at times, but in the end it was worth it because of how successful we were.” LCDR Carlton McClain, one of the aircrew, added, “I was humbled by the amazing work of both our maintainers and the airfield personnel. They accomplished a difficult mission with fewer people than normal and facilities and equipment that were never intended for an operation of this scale.” In all, this led to the squadron’s completion of 315 flight hours and all 74 of its scheduled flights. Not to be outdone, the Tigertails still onboard CARL VINSON contributed by supporting the many C-2A Greyhound cargo aircraft that landed on the carrier to bring supplies and essential personnel. Some squadron personnel were part of the command and control structure on board the ship. A few even flew into Haiti’s Port au Prince International Airport on the first helicopter every day to help coordinate the relief effort on the ground. LTJG Ruben Medalla, one of those on the ground in Port au Prince, said, “It was a very unique and challenging experience, but it was also very rewarding to be that involved in the relief effort.” The Tigertails were a driving force in every level of the operation.
However, the most meaningful statistics are not in what they did, but what they made possible. The 315 hours that Tigertail aircraft were airborne allowed for the coordination of nearly 1,400 helicopter flights from the CARL VINSON and other supporting ships. These helicopters carried nearly 5,000 passengers, including, media, military, and medical personnel. They also evacuated over 500 people injured in the earthquake, many of them critical, to nearby triage centers, hospitals, and even the hospital ship USNS COMFORT. They also carried over 300,000 lbs of food; 600,000 pounds of water; 50,000 lbs of medical supplies; and 200,000 lbs of other cargo. Without the hard work and dedication of the entire Tigertail team, none of this would have been possible, and many more lives would have been lost as a result of the disaster.
The Tigertails eventually continued on with CVN 70 and CVW-17 around South America to accomplish their original mission of renewing partnerships in the region. They have returned with a profound sense of pride for what they have accomplished, and even more, what they have done for the Haitian people. As United States Sailors, we must train for war to protect the country that we love so dearly. However, to have the privilege to embark on a peaceful mission and save lives is something that is beyond compare, and something we will never forget.
(Article by LTJG Nick Denison, USN)
(Accompanying photo by Sgt. Michael Baltz, U.S. Army)