Nations Marshal Rotorcraft to Aid Tsunami Victims
Helicopters from around the world rallied to the aid of the millions injured and displaced by tidal waves triggered by the Dec. 26, 2004 undersea earthquake off the northwestern coast of Sumatra. The waves killed more than 150,000 around the Indian Ocean.
The impromptu aerial relief operations proved the critical value that helicopters can play after disasters, particularly those that decimate communications and ground and air transportation infrastructure, according to top rotorcraft industry and relief officials and observers. Industry officials also said this demonstrates the need to formally integrate rotorcraft into disaster and emergency planning.
Without integrating rotorcraft into emergency planning, "we’re not going to be able to get relief supplies and assistance out to the people who most need help," said Rhett Flater, AHS executive director, during a presentation given Jan. 9 at a meeting of the Transportation Research Board of the U.S. National Academies in Washington, D.C. on the helicopter’s role in tsunami relief. The tsunamis spread thousands of miles from the quake’s epicenter nearly 19 mi. beneath the Indian ocean at a point about 195 mi. west of the coast of Medan, Sumatra. Large swaths of Banda Aceh province on Sumatra’s northern end were wiped out. More than 106,000 are estimated to have been killed there. Thousands of miles to the west across the Indian Ocean more than 300 people are thought to have been killed in Somalia, Tanzania and Kenya.
In total, the waves are believed to have killed nearly 160,000 people in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the African nations–although at press time the death toll was still rising.
The first helicopters on the scene were commercial and civil aircraft in the region, which were shortly joined by military units from around the region and, later, around the world.
The U.S. Navy’s USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) Carrier Strike Group, on a port call in Hong Kong, set sail for Indonesia on Dec. 27, before formal orders to assist in disaster relief were received. The strike group’s Carrier Air Wing 2 includes the aircraft of embarked Helicopter Anti-Submarine Sqdn. 2 (HS-2) flying SH-60F Seahawks and Helicopter Anti-Submarine Light Sqdn. 47 (HSL-47). In addition, several other ships carry helicopter units, including Helicopter Combat Support Sqdn. 11 (HC-11), flying MH-60S Knighthawks.
The amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) arrived Jan. 4 from a port visit to Naval Station Guam to join in what the United States had dubbed Operation Unified Assistance and in short order was moving more than 175,000 lb. of fresh water, food and medical supplies daily on and off its deck. On board is an embarked U.S. Marine Corps air combat element assigned to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and Expeditionary Strike Group Five (ESG-5) and Helicopter Combat Support Sqdn. 11 (HC-11), Det. 4, flying CH-46 Sea Knights.
At press time, the amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2), with the MH-53E Sea Dragon Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Sqdn. 15 (HM-15), was departing the Persian Gulf for the region.
Relief teams were planning to be in the region for an extended period. "I don’t see an end to this for a long, long time," the Associated Press quoted Capt. Larry Burt, who commands the Lincoln’s carrier air wing, as saying. "The biggest shortage is still airlift to the coast."
Those aviators were joined by the Australian infantry landing ship HMAS Kanimbla, whose contingent includes two Royal Australian Navy Sea Kings. Australia also sent seven UH-1H Iroquois from its Army Aviation Training Center. In addition, the Indian air force committed Mil Mi-8 and Mi-17s to relief operations, and Singapore’s air force sent six CH-47s and two Super Pumas.
The Swiss air force sent three Super Pumas for relief missions in Indonesia on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.