Airmen from the 353rd Special Operations Group have assisted Japanese officials in opening two key runways to support relief operations in northern Japan March 16.
Facilities and airfields at Matsushima Air Base and Sendai Airport were damaged by the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami that rocked northeastern Japan March 11.
Airmen from the group departed Yokota Air Base, Japan, in the early morning March 16 on a 17th Special Operations Squadron MC-130P Combat Shadow to survey and reopen the airfields. Approximately 40 minutes later, the highly-trained aircrew was able to land the special operations aircraft at Matsushima Air Base even though the air traffic control was not up and running. Immediately after landing, Airmen offloaded equipment and vehicles to reestablish Matsushima Air Base and Sendai Airport as fully functional runways.
Within an hour of landing at the air base, a group of specially trained combat controllers from the 320th Special Tactics Squadron were in the air control tower ready to provide air traffic control support for the airfield. Combat controllers are trained Special Operations Forces and certified air traffic controllers who can establish airfields, while simultaneously conducting air traffic control, command and control and humanitarian assistance in austere locations.
At the same time, another team of combat controllers and Japan Self Defense Force personnel drove to Sendai Airport, approximately 25 miles from the air base, to conduct surveys and set up their air traffic control equipment. Sendai was heavily damaged by the tsunami and littered with debris. Maj. John Traxler, 320th STS commander, said the extensive damage made it extremely difficult to operate from this airport.
“The surveys we conducted from the air a few days ago didn’t give us the complete picture of how bad this airport was hit,” Traxler said. “We knew there was a substantial amount of debris scattered over the airfield, but when you see it at ground level you fully understand the destruction caused here. I’ve worked out of several austere and damaged airfields, but this is the most devastated place I’ve seen.”
Within hours of arriving at the airport, the combat controllers had completed their surveys, marked the useable portion of the runway, set up their equipment and provided air traffic control support to clear their first aircraft to land -- a MC-130H assigned to the 1st Special Operations Squadron, which carried equipment necessary to establish aerial port operations and much-needed relief supplies for the surrounding areas.
The first aircraft to land at Sendai Airport also carried Col. Robert Toth, 353rd SOG commander. The colonel noted the condition of the area, as well as the hard work still being put in by the combat controllers and JSDF personnel.
“Despite the total devastation, the resiliency and strength of the Japanese people was clearly evident,” Toth said. “They have been working around the clock since the tsunami to remove debris. Because of their hard work, we were able to land here today, open the airfield, and provide assistance.”