By Jeni Ann Flores
Imagine finding your Christmas gifts not under a tree but falling from the sky. That is what children and adults from the far-flung Yapese islets of Tagaulap and Faleolop experienced as six boxes were dropped from a plane piloted by captains Ian Sweeney and Connor Tuma, and their crew from the 374th Airlift Wing on Dec. 5 as part of Operation Christmas Drop.
I had the thrill of being on that plane. But the flight was far more than just a thrill ride.
Operation Christmas Drop started in 1952 when the crew of a B-29 Super Fortress saw the islanders from Kapingaramangari, 3,500 miles southwest of Hawaii, waving. In the spirit of Christmas, the crew returned and dropped some gifts attached to a parachute.
This good deed has grown to 50 islands, affecting about 20,000 people, with other countries joining in the effort. Civilians, the military and their families, businesses and non-profit organizations raise funds and donate goods all year.
On “bundle day,” volunteers gather in one hangar and experience the thrill of packing the boxes with all sorts of things such as fishing hooks, soccer balls, blankets, canned goods, books and power tools. By day’s end, each box weighs about 300 lbs.
Sweeney said Christmas Drop is a coveted assignment among pilots and crew not only in his home base at Yokota, Japan but throughout the U.S. Air Force. Few experiences can match the joy of Christmas Drop.
Falalop and Tagaulap are part of Yap’s Woleaia municipality, located about 300 miles from Guam. There are about 1,000 inhabitants in the municipality, with 500-600 of them living on the 2.3-acre area of Falalop (translated “Big Island”).
“Usually when we drop humanitarian goods we do not see firsthand the faces of people receiving them. But not with OCD,” said Sweeney.
Although a pilot since 2018, with experience dropping aid in other parts of the world, this is Sweeney’s first time with Operation Christmas Drop.
The C130J can fly as low as 150 ft. but for Operation Christmas Drop, he flew at 300 ft. to allow the parachutes time to open. Low and slow (officially called "low altitude, low cost") mitigates the impact of falling. The boxes often fall on the beach. But special plastic protects the precious cargo. Sweeney also flew at the slow speed of 300 knots.
I watched loadmasters SSgt. Erik Allen and SSgt. Wiliam Jenkins stand for a long time on the open rear ramp after they had pushed the last box off the plane. Then they called over other personnel flying with us. Allen and Jenkins helped them with the harnesses and tethers, and let them share the experience.
“It is one of the best views in the Pacific. It is always a great time standing on the ramp while it is open. Not all get this experience," Allen said. "We like to share the experience with everyone if possible because it is a very memorable moment." (Sadly I was not provided this experience; Allen did not catch my sad, pleading eyes.)
The thrill never gets old, even for these career enlisted aviators.
The Lockheed-Martin C130 Super Hercules is a popular cargo plane used by many countries. The newer “J” version climbs faster at a higher cruise speed, takes off and lands in a shorter distance. The fuselage is 15 feet longer, increasing usable cargo space. The C-130J is a Super Hercules on steroids.
This was my first time riding on a military transport plane. Upon take off, I tried to erase from my mind images from the movie “Cast Away,” which started with a plane falling from the sky, cargo flying loose as projectiles, killing all passengers except Chuck Noland (played by Tom Hanks).
I decided it would be a quick and easy way to die, and I would be with Jesus immediately. So I learned how to use the complicated seat buckle and inserted my earplugs. Lt. Samantha Perez strapped me snugly in my seat. Then the engines roared. It was too late to run.
It was a four-hour flight and quite cold inside the plane. I was not thrilled to use the “honey bucket.” From my seat I studied the exposed innards of the plane, guessing each item’s use. I thought of the fascinating plane, the volunteers and the crew, and the children waiting at Woleaia Central High School with their parents.
I am grateful to be a citizen of a country that had, as Sweeney said, “the biggest, most powerful military in the world” and yet uses its people and resources to help make sure some children in the Pacific get a book for Christmas.
Winston Churchill said we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. The C-130J is combat-capable but for Operation Christmas Drop, we choose to fill it with gifts to share.
The mission of the C-130J, and of the men and women of the 374th Airlift Wing, is solely humanitarian. Helping others is all they do. This - this is the thrill of Operation Christmas Drop.