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Recovering hope: Airmen help Japanese rebuild Sendai Airport

Tech. Sgt. Denis Bryant (left) and Staff Sgt. Chris Sefton review aircraft landing schedules here March 29, 2011, at Sendai Airport, Japan. A team of 20 Airmen deployed there to help the Japanese recover and rebuild in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Bryant is an air transportation craftsman from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii; Sefton is a ground radio technician from Kadena Air Base, Japan. (U.S. Air Force Photo/ Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski)

Tech. Sgt. Denis Bryant (left) and Staff Sgt. Chris Sefton review aircraft landing schedules here March 29, 2011, at Sendai Airport, Japan. A team of 20 Airmen deployed there to help the Japanese recover and rebuild in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Bryant is an air transportation craftsman from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii; Sefton is a ground radio technician from Kadena Air Base, Japan. (U.S. Air Force Photo/ Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski)

Staff Sgt. Chris Sefton reviews aircraft landing schedules March 29, 2011, at Sendai Airport, Japan. A team of 20 Airmen deployed there to help the Japanese recover and rebuild in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Sefton is a ground radio technician with the 320th Special Tactics Squadron, Kadena Air Base, Japan. (U.S. Air Force Photo/ Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski)

Staff Sgt. Chris Sefton reviews aircraft landing schedules March 29, 2011, at Sendai Airport, Japan. A team of 20 Airmen deployed there to help the Japanese recover and rebuild in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Sefton is a ground radio technician with the 320th Special Tactics Squadron, Kadena Air Base, Japan. (U.S. Air Force Photo/ Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski)

SENDAI, Japan (AFNS) -- In the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Sendai Airport was a disaster -- cars littered the runway, debris had piled up inside the terminal, there was no power.

Sendai Airport was written off by many as gone forever.

That is, until Airmen stationed in Japan arrived there to help. Airlifters from Yokota Air Base and special operations forces from Kadena Air Base have helped prepare Sendai to become a fully functional international commercial airport again. The project has been one more part of Operation Tomodachi, the relief efforts to help the Japanese people in the wake of their national tragedy.

Because of the progress already made there, Sendai has come to "symbolize hope" for recovery in Japan.

"There's a lot of attention on Sendai and what everyone is doing to bring it back," said Col. Dwayne Lott, the 353rd Special Operations Group senior representative at Sendai. "We'd seen photos of the airfield, and it was just a mess. But we were confident we could get a plane in there, so we headed out."

SETTING UP SHOP

The first step was to prepare the runway. The SOG crew's initial plan was to hotwire a car they could use to move everything off the runway.

"It took us two days to get to Sendai because of the weather," Lott said. "We made our way here by Humvees with all the capabilities special operations forces have to bear. We were surprised when we arrived, because the Japanese had already cleared most of the cars off the runway. To us, that meant we were in business."

With enough of the airfield cleared, the 14 Airmen prepared Sendai for its first fixed-wing arrival since the disasters - a Kadena MC-130 Combat Talon II flying from Yokota AB. Five days after the earthquake and tsunami, the first plane landed. For the SOG crew, airlift meant supplies, and supplies meant recovery would, in fact, be possible.

Combat controllers immediately established the equipment they'd need to land a plane. They set up antennae on the roof of the terminal, started forecasting weather and readied their air transportation "port dogs" to unload cargo. Everything was coming together for the very reason they were there: the austere air-traffic-control mission.

"People were doing whatever was needed to get ready, regardless of their actual job," said Tech. Sgt. Michael Fletcher, an air transportation specialist with the 353rd SOG. "That first week, we were all working 18-hour shifts. But we knew we were helping people, so if we could have, we'd have worked 30-hour days."

The team soon began calling Staff Sgt. Kelsey Kent "Clark," because, as Fletcher put it: "That guy's Superman -- he can do anything."

Kent, an electrical power production craftsman by trade, was running generators, fueling vehicles, marshalling K-loaders, driving forklifts, loading trucks and anything else people needed him to do.

"Honestly, we didn't think we'd need a power-pro guy," said Capt. Joseph Booker, director of operations for the 320th Special Tactics Squadron from Kadena. "In hindsight, I'm glad we did. We'd have literally been in the dark without him."

With transformers wiped out from the tsunami, Sendai was entirely without electricity. It took Kent a few hours, but he was able to set up a diesel-run generator to power everyone's equipment.

"I just had a small role in what we do, but I'm happy to be a part of it," Kent said. "When all is said and done, I want to fly in here as a tourist one day and see the Japanese running Sendai Airport again."

A few days later, civilian airport staff began to trickle in, ready to get back to work.

'WHAT DO YOU NEED?'

With the airfield ready to accept planes, the next step was figuring out what needed to be shipped. In the first few waves, Yokota Airmen delivered basic supplies to do their jobs - food, water, heaters, a forklift, as they hunkered down for an unknown amount of time to assist the Japanese people in reopening the airport.

According to Lott, Japanese crews didn't quite believe it until the planes started landing regularly. At that point, it was time for the real mission to begin.

Lott met with Col. Makoto Kasamatsu, the representative from the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force. Kasamatsu had been helping coordinate Japanese military and civilian efforts to reopen Sendai.

"When we met, I reassured him that we were in no way there to take over his operation," Lott said. "Our entire presence was based on helping them. I went to him and asked, 'What do you need?' We talked a bit more and he said his trucks needed fuel, so we started there."

On March 24, C-130 Hercules crews from Yokota's 36th Airlift Squadron delivered more than 2,300 pounds of diesel fuel. Japanese workers were then better able to clear debris from around the airport.

EXPANDING OPERATIONS

Once the combat controllers of the 320th STS were able to land C-130s, it came time to step up operations. Support elements from the Army and Marines arrived to help transport humanitarian aid to remote villages. Sendai Airport had become a central distribution hub for water, blankets, food and other relief supplies.

With greater demand came greater responsibility and more airlift missions. The time had come for the 320th STS Airmen to ready the airfield for C-17 Globemaster III missions.

"That was a big day for us; there was so much Japanese media here for that first C-17 landing," Booker said. "Landing the C-17s here meant more cargo per mission and larger pieces of equipment could be delivered, but really, it was bigger than just greater airlift capability. If the Japanese saw we could land a C-17 at Sendai, they'd realize it was only a matter of time before commercial aircraft would be back."

PREPARING FOR TRANSITION

Having proven that larger planes could now land at Sendai, it was time to begin the transition. Full Japanese crews were back running operations a mere three weeks after the natural disasters.

"We were never here to showcase all we could do," Lott said. "Our role was just to come in and be quiet professionals, make ourselves available to help and then leave when we're done. As for our continued partnership, we did what we said we would to help, so that builds trust between both countries. The Japanese people know they can count on their American allies."

Kasamatsu expressed his sincere appreciation for everything Airmen have done to help recovery efforts at Sendai.

"This has been a tremendous effort by the U.S. Air Force," the colonel said. "We've stood shoulder to shoulder as partners in this project. America has given us the energy to see this through. From the bottom of my heart, I thank all the American forces helping the people of Japan.

"Sendai Airport is a symbol of recovery for Japan," Kasamatsu added. "It's the symbol of hope for us."

PARTNERING FOR THE FUTURE

Though commercial airliners haven't landed at Sendai yet, it's only a matter of time, Lott said.

"The Japanese are a very resilient people," he said. "They have a plan in place to reopen Sendai. I can't wait for that day.

"The key to our success was maintaining respect for our Japanese hosts and partners," Lott added. "They asked us for our help, and we were there. That's what 'tomodachi' - good friends - do for each other."