Overcoming the airlift operational challenges of Hurricane Irma relief mission: A case study from the Heavy Airlift Wing

The Heavy Airlift Wing, equipped with its three Boeing C-17 Globemaster III long-range cargo jets, brought in 220,000 LBS of humanitarian aid along with personnel in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, proving to be a vital role in the disaster relief mission. Colonel James Sparrow, Vice Commander of the SAC Heavy Airlift Wing and speaker at Military Airlift 2018, was a key witness of the mission. In this exclusive interview, he dives into the mission, from planning it at short notice, to facing security and operational challenges on the ground.

Preparing for the mission

The teams had only a short period of time to prepare for the Hurricane Irma disaster relief mission, as Colonel Sparrow explains: “we got a call from the Dutch MoD a day or two before they wanted to fly the mission.” A few elements had to be taken care of very quickly, such as determining the location of the airfield they would land on in Sint Maarten, check all available information on it and evaluate crew availability and their preparedness to fly the mission.

This was a different tempo from typical missions, as the HAW usually aims at planning a mission two weeks out and get requirements from the different member nations earlier than that. The short notice of this particular mission was different, but it was not the first time the organisation was involved in disaster relief, as it was present during assistance missions of the Haiti earthquake and the flood in Pakistan in 2010.

“We got a call from the Dutch MoD a day or two before they wanted to fly the mission”

Once a crew was found and an airfield was deemed suitable, the mission was scheduled and an aircraft was flown to Eindhoven to pick up the cargo. The first flight was conducted to Curacao with a fuel stop in the Azores. The second flight was planned to Curacao with an option to go to Sint Maarten in case the airfield was deemed suitable for a C-17 after engineers inspected the runway did not have any damage due to watch washing under it during the storm. The C-17 was retasked to land in Sint Maarten just after departing to Azores, as the crew had been filled with the latest information while being on the ground in Azores.

Some logistical questions remained: had the runway been damaged? Was the air traffic control working? Was there a functional tower? The Dutch MoD had a presence in Sint Maarten, which made it easier for the teams to have information on the airfield. “I believe a C-130 landed the day before and some engineering capability for the aircraft was already onsite, so we knew beforehand that we could land with our C-17.” This information was crucial for the mission, as they did not want to launch it and land in an inhospitable environment where they would have delivered the cargo, but the aircraft would have been left stranded on the ground and unable to take off from there.

As for the potential scenario where the aircraft could not have landed in Sint Maarten, the HAW has the possibility to air drop the supplies. “We did talk about this briefly and we have two qualified crews for air drop operations who routinely practice it.” It would have required coordination with the Dutch Marines, as they would have needed them on the ground. In the eventuality that it would not have been possible, he outlines two other solutions: a drop zone controller coupled with a control team or a loan of personnel from another nation.


The main challenge for mission planning was the lack of direct communication between the HAW teams in Pàpa and the teams on the ground in Sint Maarten before the launch of the mission. “We were using the Dutch MoD as the intermediary with the forces over there to talk about the plan, but there was no direct communication with them, because the communications were down on the island.” This lack of knowledge of the situation onsite could have modified the original plan and would have taken some time for the teams to adjust. “After we sent the first aircraft in though, the teams knew what to expect and they were able to pass that information back for the teams sent to the next mission.”

To find out how the mission went, and lessons learned from it, download the full case study below: 

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