728 AMS Airmen Played Critical Role in Turkish Earthquake Relief Efforts

By MS. CHRISTINE WALSH, STAFF WRITER

As part of humanitarian and disaster relief efforts in the aftermath of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit central-southern Turkey and northern Syria on February 6, 2023, the 728th Air Mobility Squadron (AMS) offloaded an abundance of crucial equipment and supplies from aircraft.

Located at Incirlik Air Base (AB) in Adana, Turkey, 728 AMS is an enroute squadron that reports to Air Mobility Command’s (AMC’s) 521st Air Mobility Operations Wing. The squadron consists of more than 200 permanent party Airmen, Turkish nationals, and Air Expeditionary Force augmentees who ensure safe and effective enroute support for missions transiting Europe, Africa, and Southwest Asia. The squadron supports five combatant commanders with aerial port operations, aircraft maintenance, and command and control. To support the Turkish earthquake relief efforts, the 728 AMS was in the right place at the right time.

Lt Col Matthew Bryan was the 728 AMS Commander at Incirlik AB from June 2022 to June 2023. “At the time, the impact of the earthquake was not immediately known,” Bryan said, adding that personnel came to work as usual that morning. “Only after we arrived at work did we start getting the news of how bad the damage was here in Turkey.”

At about 10 a.m., the first aircraft arrived to start bringing relief to the civilians who were affected.

The squadron immediately went into action, the base went into crisis mode, and the Crisis Action Team and the wing’s Operations Center were activated. Within about two hours of the squadron’s arrival at the earthquake site, the team was already communicating with all the base agencies that needed to be involved. The first to arrive were search and rescue teams bringing gear such as chainsaws, jackhammers, and jaws of life, followed by medical supplies, baby formula, food, blankets, clothes, tents, and generators. Two mobile hospitals also arrived to help the injured. “It was incredible,” Bryan said.

While Turkish officials determined distribution areas, the 728 AMS began downloading cargo and getting it loaded onto helicopters as quickly as possible. In the first 72 hours, they downloaded more cargo than in all of calendar year 2022; in total, they downloaded six times their annual workload in a one-month period. They also offloaded more than a million pounds of fuel. “So, it was a huge, heavy lift for us,” Bryan said.

The 728 AMS also coordinated all the aircraft maintenance. A Turkish 777, an Azerbaijani 747, and an Italian aircraft were among those that broke and needed maintenance on the taxiway. The maintenance team was able to leverage their mechanics’ skillset to fix the aircraft and open the spot back up for other aircraft waiting to pull up.

Thousands of HH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters participated in relief efforts, which presented a need for hot pit refueling, a task not normally within the 728 AMS’s scope of responsibility. A hot pit refueling site survey was needed on the airport’s echo apron, the most geographically safe area, because aircraft were taxiing everywhere. Their joint force partners, the Army Archangels, were thankful and clearly impressed by the effort. “Within the first few days, we added about 2,200 helicopter sorties that we [normally] would not have been able to capitalize on because we had the ability to rapidly refuel running helicopters, taxi them in, and taxi them out,” said MSgt Caleb Simpson, the production superintendent for the 728 AMS. “The whole idea that ‘It’s not my job,’ that doesn’t live in any of the people that we work with in this unit.”

Simpson recalled once seeing a Turkish C-130 land and 91 coal miners exit the back with gear, including pickaxes, hats with lamps, and bags of clothes. The miners turned out to be volunteers to help dig for survivors. “There was an absolute language barrier, but there was no communication barrier when it came to the need and how urgent the actions were for this unit,” Simpson said.

To overcome a bottleneck and pileup from the massive amounts of airplanes and supplies coming in, the 728 AMS senior non-commissioned officers met with the Turkish Air Force’s 10th Tanker Base Command squadron commanders to devise a flow plan, which effectively doubled the size of the cargo yard, separated the truck loading and helicopter loading areas, and used the fire department training area, which became known as the “Ring of Fire.” “That was something that I think in the long run will help continue to build our relationship with our Turkish partners,” Bryan said.

Bryan recalled meeting with a Turkish lieutenant colonel at that time. “He looked at me, and I saw pain in his eyes, and he just said, ‘My country is hurting right now,’” Bryan said. “And when you hear those words from someone who is experiencing that level of pain, it just makes you want to help them even more.”

The 728 AMS worked closely with Turkish allies and Spanish and Polish partners who came to help with the relief effort. Even administrative and maintenance personnel helped load boxes on trucks. “It was really an all-hands-on-deck operation,” Bryan said. “It was one of those things where everybody involved in the operation at the time knew how important what they were doing was and the impact that they were having. And it was something I was extremely proud to be a part of because you can see the impact of what we’re doing.

“We are a responsive force,” Bryan said. “We’re agile, and we’re able to flex our operations in a very short period of time; that’s what we trained for. We knew how to do it, and we knew what we needed to do.”

That mindset required going from their normal 8-hour days to 12-hour days and performing tasks not defined by their Air Force specialty codes. “We really leaned into our MCA (Multi-Capable Airmen) capabilities,” Simpson said of the initiative that challenges Airmen to step out of their comfort zones. “We quickly briefed our individuals; we said, ‘Hey, we’re not just going to be asking you to do your normal duties. We’re going to be asking you to go a little bit above and beyond and load pallets, move cargo, load trucks, drive forklifts.’”

The supply chain logistics involved in those efforts were “undoubtedly challenging,” Simpson said. “In the wake of such a large-scale disaster, the necessity for immediate and substantial response demanded that we increase our workflow operations.”

A couple of maintenance non-commissioned officers (NCOs) were appointed to direct aerial port operations on the ground, MSgt Roscoe Tamondong, the 728 AMS’s lead production superintendent, explained. “No one was above anything,” Tamondong said. “We definitely had to tap into readiness, that mental piece.”

Tamondong said the successful effort was “a very big testament to” the NCO corps, particularly because they are young and Incirlik AB is their first installation, so this mission was their first time helping a nation in need.

Although Turkey’s Disaster Management Authority provided many of the supplies, cargo also came in from other nations, including Japan, Germany, and the United States. More than 27 nations sent cargo, all via civilian aircraft. The U.S. Agency for International Development sent personnel as well as supplies. The 728 AMS was responsible for organizing the chaos. That is where MSgt Ahmad Butler, the 728 AMS section chief for the Air Operations Center, and his team came in to orchestrate the ground operations.

“We didn’t know what they were carrying, how much they had, and when it was going to stop,” Butler said.

Controllers gathered and disseminated information from the aircraft to get as accurate a count as possible. Local nationals translated to help with the language barrier. “They were awesome,” Butler said.

Airmen assigned to the 728 AMS offloaded a 52-bed emergency field hospital tent from a chartered 747-400F at Incirlik AB. “It was a great feat to have those guys and work with our Turkish partners, to be able to coordinate with them and get past that language barrier,” Butler said.

“There were so many people that were hurt or died during this disaster,” Bryan said.

“Every single local national in our squadron was affected by either knowing someone or having a close family member that died in the earthquake. And so, while we were doing these operations, it was very apparent to us the gravity of the situation.”

Bryan is proud of how flexible, agile, and mobile his team is and how well they respond to different scenarios. “One of the things that we always talk about here at the squadron is that we’re going to stay ready so we don’t have to get ready,” Bryan said. “This team put together an incredible effort, and it’s something that I can say I have not witnessed before in my career.”