Air Force Reserve Sr. Airman Brianna Senatore wasn’t given much notice when she packed her bags, got on a C-17 flying in to New Jersey from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and hopscotched across the eastern United States to a hurricane disaster zone in Florida.
She and five other reserve firefighters climbed aboard the Wright-Patt based C-17 Globemaster III at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., winging toward south Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma pummeling the state.
“Honestly, we were told at 9 in the morning start packing your bags and then we got a call around 9:30 to head to base as fast as we possibly could,” she said.
This newspaper on Tuesday followed along as the four-engine cargo jet from the Air Force Reserve 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patterson hauled 17 airmen and 74,000 pounds of cargo – packaged Meals Ready-to-Eat, a mobile kitchen, cots and two massive forklifts — for a cross-country marathon.
‘It’s pretty fast…almost chaotic’
Along with New Jersey, the C-17 landed at Dover Air Force Base, Del., and Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga., before the troops departed and the crew unloaded everything at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., as the sun set under the palm trees and the sky turned dark. The shortest stop lasted barely 20 minutes and the longest a little more than two hours on the 12-hour round-trip journey through five states.
“It’s pretty fast (and) although it’s pretty calculated and configured, it’s almost chaotic…” said Staff Sgt. Jason Benedict, 35, of Columbus and a cargo load master.
Facing her first real-world military mission, Senatore wasn’t sure what her team might be called on to do, but the firefighters were trained to rescue stranded homeowners hemmed in by water, she said.
“We don’t know exactly what we’re going to do, but we’re going to be on hand wherever and for whatever to help with the situation,” said Senatore, a reservist who is a nurse’s aide at a Philadelphia hospital in her civilian job.
At Dover Air Force Base, the shortest stop, Staff Sgt. Ishmael Dixon climbed aboard with 10 other airmen as the jet engines never shut off. The airmen will coordinate logistics on the ground at Homestead.
It wasn’t the way Dixon dreamed he would spend his 29th birthday Wednesday.
“We say service before self,” the Rochester, N.Y. native said. “It’s something I don’t mind doing.”
He didn’t know how long the logistics team might have to stay. “As long as they need us to,” he said.
Filling the tank
Lt. Col. Brett Manger, 46, C-17 aircraft commander, made sure the jet was filled with 180,000-pounds of fuel for the trek.
“That will get us all the way back to Wright-Patterson without having to get gas so that makes us get down there faster,” the Beavercreek resident said.
“We got a lot of people on back-up ready to go,” he added. “Once we get back, the tail’s probably going to turn and launch back out again on another one.”
The crew had an 18-hour time limit – two hours longer than normally allowed – to get everything where it needed to be and get back to Wright-Patterson, he said.
“It’s kind of rare that we get this many legs in one day,” Manger said.
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“We get 18 hours to get on the ground and be done or else we time out so we don’t want to be stuck in Florida.”
On takeoff and landing, tons of cargo plastic wrapped and tied down on pallets lurched forward and back. Load masters tied chains and chocks to secure two giant green forklifts as big as and taller than large SUVs.
For Benedict, who has traveled to 30 countries with the Wright-Patt reserve wing over nearly a decade, the push to get there and back on a gruelingly long day was routine.
“We get around,” Benedict said. “We fly nonstop. We never really time out for anything. We’re highly operational even as a reserve unit.”
The round-the-clock work shift makes it hard to sleep, said Benedict, an oil and gas industry sales representative in the civilian world.
“Restful sleep is always good,” he said, still professing his love of the flying job.
Manger, a former Army helicopter pilot, is a longtime veteran who has flown Air Force Reserve missions from Wright-Patt around the globe, including hot spots such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
The former Army helicopter pilot switched to flying heavy airlifters like the C-17 in the Air Force Reserve to see more of the world.
On this trip, he said, “we’re on the same time zone so it’s a lot friendlier on our body. When you’re going overseas you’re crossing six, seven different time zones and you’re just whipped.”
“It’s a super rewarding job doing what we’re doing whether we’re taking beans or bullets downrange or bringing back the wounded,” he added. “We’re always making sure that we’re on time, ready to go whenever we need to.”
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The C-17 was one part of a large-scale Defense Department deployment of thousands of troops to Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in the days after Hurricane Irma rocked Florida, a story that also played out in Texas when Hurricane Harvey unleashed devastating floods.
The Pentagon reported this week nearly 21,000 troops, including each service branch and National Guardsmen, were involved in hurricane relief efforts in the eastern United States and another 10,000 in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Among the flotilla were Navy and Coast Guard warships and aircraft, Air Force cargo planes, Marine amphibious units and Army trucks transporting relief supplies.