Seasonal cheer once again was delivered by Hercules transport aircraft to remote Pacific communities thanks to Operation Christmas Drop 18.
Conducted from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam from 5 to 18 December 2018, the operation brought together C-130J Hercules crews from the United States, Japan, and Australia.
The three participant nations delivered 154 bundle loads to 56 islands in the Republic of Palau, Northern Marianas Islands, and Federated States of Micronesia.
The RAAF crew at Operation Christmas Drop 18 was assigned the callsign ‘Santa 99’, and embarked on missions taking up to eight hours and covering more than 4000 kilometres.
FLTLT Nicholas Bourke, RAAF Detachment, was a first-time participant in Operation Christmas Drop.
“Delivering supplies to people who are a long way away is great training for us,” FLTLT Bourke said.
“It’s also wonderful to spread the Christmas cheer to people in very remote places in the world.”
“It’s fantastic to be a part of Operation Christmas Drop.”
The RAAF C-130J Hercules brought to Guam was A97-440, which recently received a pair of external fuel tanks that boost its fuel capacity from 19 to 27 tonnes.
This increased the range and loiter time for the Hercules, allowing the crew to factor in contingencies such as bad weather or other emergencies.
The extra range made the RAAF Hercules the platform for choice when delivering to the most remote islands, delivering 16 bundle loads to seven islands.
“With the external tanks, on one or two of those days we wouldn’t have been able to do the mission otherwise,” FLTLT Bourke said.
“(The tanks) add about four hours of flight time to what we could normally achieve.”
“That’s really important going out to islands that are 2000 kilometres away out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no other airfields around nearby if something was to go wrong.”
Operation Christmas Drop begins with a series of practice missions followed by a ‘Bundle Build Day’, where participants and volunteers build the loads that will be delivered.
The loads contain rice, canned food, a portable cooler, mosquito netting, toiletries, and fishing supplies.
They also hold clothes, shoes, backpacks, books and pencils.
Each load weighs approximately 200 kilograms and is attached to a low-cost parachute system.
RAAF personnel rarely get the opportunity to help build these loads, and the Bundle Build Day provided a welcome insight.
“It really brought the story together from start to finish, where you build the bundle and then go fly the mission where you deliver it to the people who get the supplies,” FLTLT Bourke said.
After a formal opening ceremony, crews then embark on their missions for Operation Christmas Drop 18.
FLTLT Bourke said he was impressed by the training value of the missions.
“The airdrops, whilst beautiful, were also quite challenging at times,” FLTLT Bourke said.
“The drop zones required a degree of crew coordination to find the best drop location and achieve success.”
Many of the islands require crews to drop precisely onto a spot in the water or on a lagoon, where recovery boats can negotiate coral reefs, shallow areas, and breakwaters.
Large flocks of seabirds on the islands, often startled by the appearance of a Hercules, also present a hazard for aircrew that must be safely overcome.
The RAAF crew were also challenged at Agrihan Island in the Northern Marianas.
Formed out of a large volcano that towers above the Pacific, Agrihan has sheer waterfront cliffs and almost no level ground, leaving few options for crew to ‘run in’ to the drop zone.
With no trained drop zone party on the ground, aircrew must survey the conditions from the air.
“We conduct a number of passes over the top to make sure it’s clear and suitable to drop, and then after that we’re able to complete the airdrop,” FLTLT Bourke said.
“Our participation here allows us to train our airdrop crews to conduct airdrop in austere environments far away from home base.”
Amongst the far-flung islands delivered to by the RAAF were Kapingamarangi, an atoll in the Federated States of Micronesia that’s 2000 kilometres from Guam.
Kapingamarangi holds the distinction of being the first island delivered to by Operation Christmas Drop in 1952.
The crew of a United States Air Force WB-29 weather reconnaissance aircraft overflew the island and, seeing the community, made an impromptu delivery.
In 2018, the RAAF was fortunate to be tasked on two missions to Kapingamarangi.
“It’s a great honour for us to go out to that original island to participate now, some 67 years later,” FLTLT Bourke said.
“We’ll fly three and a half hours just to reach the island, and spending half an hour out there surveying the drop zone and complete the drop.”
For Loadmasters like SGT Karl Penny, Operation Christmas Drop is a welcome task.
“As a C-130 Loadmaster, your role can take you anywhere in the world on all kinds of missions, some of them can be quite serious or even sombre,” SGT Penny said.
“Operation Christmas Drop is unique as it is a rare chance to deliver humanitarian supplies in the spirit of goodwill.”
During a typical mission, the RAAF crew might visit two drop zones hundreds of kilometres apart.
During this transit, the Loadmasters will ‘drift’ loads – moving them carefully down the cargo bay – and secure them to the ramp for the next drop.
“We liaise with our pilots so that we load the bundles in the correct order on the aircraft, which depends on the requirements of each island we are visiting,” SGT Penny said.
“We’ll then conduct joint checks with USAF Loadmasters before flight.”
This year marked the second time SGT Penny had participated in Operation Christmas Drop.
“Being able to conduct a live humanitarian air drop to these remote island communities, all in the spirit of Christmas, has been a career highlight,” SGT Penny said.
“There is something uniquely rewarding about seeing a whole village of people waving back at you after you have dropped a present for them, you really do feel like Santa.”
On each day of Operation Christmas Drop, there can be up to five Hercules conducting missions to remote islands.
The man responsible for keeping islands in contact with aircrew is Bruce Best, known to many as ‘Brother Bruce’.
From an office at the University of Guam, Mr Best uses a HF radio antenna to speak to islands and aircrew during Operation Christmas Drop missions.
Mr Best said the Hercules has almost become Santa’s sleigh for children in the Pacific.
“When that C-130 rumbles over with those four big motors, they know that Christmas is coming,” Mr Best said.
“That sleigh opens up the back end, and those presents come out.”
The utility of loads delivered during Operation Christmas Drop goes beyond the contents of the box.
“Everything in the boxes is well used – but every year the most important thing for them is the parachute,” Mr Best said.
“They go and get the parachute, and now it’s covering the school yards as a shade, and covering the canoe houses to keep the canoes in good order.”
For more than 40 years, Mr Best has been in continuous contact with the islands, leading him to become synonymous with Operation Christmas Drop.
Outside of the operation, Mr Best will visit many of the island communities that receive bundles, and said the contents were vital to their wellbeing.
“(The) sea levels are coming up a little bit, so the islands are getting a little saltwater on the taro patches from the high waves now that they didn’t have before,” Mr Best said.
“We threw in bags of cement this year to raise the garden bed so that (when) the sea level rises, comes over a berm, it goes around the garden.”
“Every year it gets a little more important because of the environmental changes they’re experiencing.”