Leader Blues

Saturday, January 23, 2010

TOP STORY >> Neighbors who save lives

 
A United Nations truck passes a C-130J at the Port-Au-Prince airport on Jan. 14 as more emergency supplies were delivered.

John Hofheimer, Leader senior staff writer, stands in front of a C-130J at the Port-au-Prince Airport in Haiti last weekend.

By JOHN HOFHEIMER

Leader senior staff writer

Elvis and Eddie Joe go to church together.

No, really.

Tech Sgt. Evan “Elvis” Hendricks and Cabot Mayor Eddie Joe Williams are Magness Creek neighbors and attend the same church. That’s what Hendricks, a Little Rock Air Force Base loadmaster, said Monday aboard a C-130J returning to Pope Air Force Base, N.C., after offloading soldiers and relief supplies at the airport in Port-au-Prince in Haiti.

Along with a reporter-photographer team from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I was aboard the 41st Airlift Squadron’s second plane committed to making relief flights to Haiti in the wake of the devastating earthquake on Jan. 11.

Hendricks was one of three Cabot residents and a Sherwood resident comprising the four-man crew, plus an electrical and maintenance team.

Capt. Sean Callahan, the pilot, and Master Sgt. Patrick Drozd, a loadmaster, were the other Cabot residents, and 1st Lt. Kevin Bailey, the co-pilot, was the Sherwood resident.

I had flown on an older C-130 when the National Guard named it “City of Lonoke,” part of a public-relations campaign. It was a low-level flight and my main responsibility was to not throw up on Mayor Thomas Privett’s shoes. I was successful in that regard, but it left me concerned about several legs of a thousand-mile –plus flights to ferry aid to Haiti.

But the new state-of-the-art C-130J, flown at high altitude by this expert crew was a different story. The flight was as comfortable as it could be, packed shoulder to shoulder with members of the 82nd Airborne Division on canvas bench seats.

The plane had a modern, commercial airline-style toilet, if not the privacy of a commercial flight restroom.

Heating and cooling, which usually worked, were powerful, as was the plane, taking off with a heavy load.

The instrumentation was state-of-the-art computer controlled and electronic, with some displays on glass screens between the pilots and the front windshield.

I took airsickness medication, but the flights were so smooth that it probably wasn’t necessary.

HATIAN VACATION

They told us to be ready for anything as crew-rest restrictions pretty much turned night into day and day into night. But who could have been prepared for a relief flight to Haiti to be redirected to the airport at St. Croix, Virgin Islands, after there was too much air traffic to land at Port-au-Prince as planned Saturday?

“Only you could take off to cover a disaster and end up at a beach resort,” my brother Craig later quipped from his Brooklyn home.

And it was pretty strange, flying for several hours to Pope AFB, taking on passengers and relief supplies, flying on to Haiti only to be stacked up over the airport and then diverted to vacation mecca St. Croix, about 450 miles to the east.

Crew and media totaling 13 went by cab to a hotel on the bay, but not on the beach. Fishing charters, sail boards, rowboats, catamarans — loads of boats on a calm and beautiful day.

What I found on this trip were airmen who seemed well-trained, competent, confident and good-humored.

HERB-SEARED TUNA

I had a couple of local beers and herb-seared tuna, served on grilled squash slices on a bed of spinach. I don’t know if that’s irony or insensitivity or what, dining at a resort while people were starving and dying for a drink of water back in Haiti, but I swallowed my guilt along with my dinner.

We got up at about 2:30 a.m. Little Rock time Sunday morning and by 10 a.m., we had unloaded our cargo at Port-au-Prince and took off for St. Croix for fuel and another night’s sleep.

When the hotel had only 12 rooms for 13 people, instead of rolling the double-bunking duties downhill to airmen, Callahan and Bailey shared a room. We awoke again in the wee hours of the morning and this time deadheaded back to Pope Air Force Base, where Callahan’s crew awaited their next orders and I lost my computer and flew home on U.S. Air from Fayetteville, N.C.
Even those in the flight operations center at Little Rock Air Force Base were friendly, relaxed and helpful.

PERSONAL TOUCH

And folks at mission command at Pope Air Force Base helped find the laptop computer and bag I left behind, secured it and got it in the hands of Callahan the same day. But I had ended my four-day tour of duty and was boarding a commercial flight back to Little Rock by then.

Airman Vanessa Dale, of LRAFB public affairs, called to tell me Callahan had my computer and would bring it back when the C-130J returns to the base.

Also confidence-inspiring were the 46 soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division, young, strong rangy men packed into bench seats shoulder to shoulder. To reach the only bathroom on the C-130J, they had to scramble over the tops of relief pallets nearly five-feet high, which many did with the ease and agility of spider monkeys.

These are the kind of guys you want defending you in a difficult situation, observed Command Chief Master Sgt. Anthony Brinkley, who is the senior enlisted man for the 19th Airlift Wing at LRAFB.

Brinkley said, “I’m going (on this trip) to gain perspective on what my people are doing.”

Of the relief effort, “This is what we do, people need help,” the chief said.

In four days with Brinkley, he never met a stranger. He made friends with the cab drivers, reporters, soldiers and airmen he encountered. He said he was an introvert, but he seems to have more than compensated.

THE CREW

Hendricks, 35, is career military. The Checotah, Okla., native has been in the Air Force since he was 19.

At one of his first assignments, at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, a 7-year-old girl saw him and told her mother, “He looks like Elvis.”

Two weeks later, Elvis was on his name tag, and it has been ever since, he said.

Though he recently returned from a 130-day deployment at Kandahar, Afghanistan, he’s also done a lot of humanitarian work at Sarajevo.

He likes humanitarian work because “you get an instant sense of accomplishment.”

He, Bailey and Callahan were in Kandahar at the same time.

Part of the reason he agreed to join the crew for this trip was because of Callahan, he said.

“He doesn’t make you mad and he’s very intelligent. We have a lot of respect for him,” Hendricks said.

Hendricks chose to live in Cabot because he and his wife want to start a family and they liked the schools and the community, he said. “We’ll retire in Cabot.”

He’s only got four years left until he can retire and he’s hoping to get a civilian job on the base for Lockheed—manufacturer of the C-130—as a loadmaster instructor.

Currently he’s a standardization and quality evaluator at the base.

“I’ve been stationed many places, but I’ve never seen as much cohesion with a community as the base has with Jacksonville,” Hendricks said.

“Most places don’t offer discounts at businesses, most aren’t as welcoming. I don’t know how many times I’ve been eating and someone has picked up the tab,” he said.

Drozd, 36, is a tall, solid, fit-looking career airman, built like a college defensive end, born in Hallettsville, Texas.

“I’m superintendent of group training,” he said. “They called and I gladly obliged.”

Drozd said that the first day, the plane couldn’t get clearance to land. On the second day, “we flew straight in, the chaos had settled out and we got the pallets off pretty quick.”

Drozd, who had previously deployed to Kandahar, said flying relief supplies was nicer. “Over there, people don’t like you.

“It’s essentially the same, but it’s nice to know nobody’s shooting at you.”

He said he welcomed the opportunity to help and to get out from the office, where he’s usually doing paperwork.

“I was expecting more traffic,” Sunday,” when the C-130J was able to land.

“They knew we were coming and they were ready for us. The forklifts were ready. It took a while to get in gear, but it looks like the cogs are turning.”

He said the crew was pieced together for the job, because the 41st Airlift Squadron has a lot of airmen deployed right now.

Bailey is the youngster of the crew at 26.

He’s been in the Air Force for four years and has been flying C-130s for two years.

The Middletown, Pa., native lives in Sherwood.

Flying to Haiti is a lot like the flights in the desert, he said, referring to the war on terrorism in the Middle East.

He said they were still “working out the kinks” at the undersized airport at Port-au-Prince. “It’s so early in the mission.”

Callahan, 36, lives in Cabot, but he’ll be moving soon to a new duty assignment at Dyess Air Force Base, where he’ll help start a new C-130J squadron.

He’s been flying the C-130Js since they first came to the base. He was one of the first trained to fly the J-model, and as soon as his training was finished, he was one of the first C-130J instructors on the active-duty side of the base.

“It’s very rewarding to sit at home—one day you’re watching (the Haiti earthquake aftermath) on CNN, and three days later, you’re there,” he said.

“I’m career for sure,” said Callahan, who installed flooring for six years before joining the Air Force.

“It was hard on the knees,” he remembers.

Also on board from LRAFB were Senior Airman Travis Donaway, 21, an electronic environmental specialist, and Staff Sgt. Jordan Cote, who had his nose buried in technical manuals and in his laptop trying to figure out a problem with an alert system on the C-130J.