DOBBINS AIR RESERVE BASE, Ga. – Late Wednesday evening, the first of several KC-130s carrying evacuees landed on the Dobbins flightline. What began as a typical aircraft arrival scene with airfield managers guiding the planes in, became a bit more unique as Marine Corps aircrews offloaded suitcases of different shapes and colors and arranged them in rows on the flightline. Families exited the aircraft – some with children and pets – and made their way off the flightline, beginning the next leg of their long journey to safety.
Dobbins served as a transportation hub for civilian and contract Department of Defense personnel, who were evacuated from the Caribbean and flown here Sept. 6 and 7 to escape the path of Hurricane Irma.
“Once they arrived in the states, they needed somewhere to go to transit on to their next station, so that’s where the Air Force came in,” said Maj. Keith Callahan, 94th LRS director of operations. “We were able to provide that transit hub for them.”
Callahan explained the evacuation process was a “total force initiative,” involving several branches to make the operation a success, as well as several units here at Dobbins, including the Force Support Squadron, Services, Security Forces Squadron and the 94th Operations Group.
The U.S. Navy managed the overall logistics of moving these evacuees to a safe location, employing Marine Corps KC-130 and its aircrew to fly the personnel and their belongings to Dobbins. Members of FSS, LRS and Services teamed up to process about 180 evacuees over the two-day evacuation. This process helped maintain accountability of the evacuees before they were transported to temporary lodging off base, he said.
The squadron also gained valuable experience in managing people and cargo they aren’t necessarily accustomed to. In normal operations, LRS typically processes adult passengers and the cargo required to perform the mission, whether it be a deployment or a temporary assignment. For the evacuation, however, they found themselves processing children and pets, which was a new experience, said Callahan.
In addition to receiving evacuees, the base also received aircraft from bases in the path of the storm. These included F-5s from Key West Naval Air Station, Fla.; C-130s and HH-60s from Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.; and Cessna aircraft from Jacksonville and Tampa.
Timing proved to be a major challenge for the evacuation. The spontaneous nature of natural disasters makes it difficult to anticipate exact numbers and timelines for transporting people and cargo.
“We really didn’t have any time to plan,” said Ryan Firth, an evacuee. “We thought we were going to be evacuated the day after, but no, thank God, we had the military show up.”
“These folks were given ten minutes’ notice,” Callahan said, regarding the evacuees’ experience leaving the Caribbean. “They thought they were going to Florida potentially and then they didn’t know where they were going. Same thing for the F-5s … so the information is constantly changing. So that means we here at Dobbins have to constantly react, and that’s where we have a great team here that is well trained. They know their jobs. They’ve been able to exercise it in the past. So now when it comes time, it’s very easy for them to use that training to adjust very quickly and to make the plan change to fit the new information.”
Ultimately, Dobbins managed these challenges effectively as the evacuees were quickly processed and transported onward to locations where they will ride out the storm.
“Everybody’s training and everybody’s willingness, everybody’s desire to help folks who needed it – especially our brethren from other services – everybody jumped in and was willing to help and really made it happen,” said Callahan.