Japanese tsunami's impact on 190th missions

  • Published
  • By Capt. Joe Blubaugh
  • 190th ARW Public Affairs
With the ferocity of Kansas weather, it's not uncommon for a mission to be impacted by thunderstorms, wind or even the occasional blizzard. However, it's not often that a 190th mission is affected by a tsunami, but that's exactly what happened following the massive earthquake and resulting tsunami that recently struck Japan.

Within minutes of the earthquake, officials issued tsunami warnings for Japan and dozens of other islands throughout the Pacific, including Wake Island and Hawaii, both of which were the temporary home of three 190th KC-135s and their crews.

The two tankers and crews at Wake Island were part of a six ship mission escorting 12 Marine F-18s from Japan to the United States. The Coyotes took off from Yakota AFB just hours before the devastating earthquake struck. They were unaware of the earthquake, or the resulting tsunami, until they landed at Wake Island.

It was actually several hours after their arrival that they learned they were in a tsunami warning. And once they learned of the approaching tsunami, they had less than three hours until the anticipated wave would strike. Unlike many islands, Wake is extremely small and completely void of any elevated features. "The tallest features on the island are the two-story billeting buildings," said Maj. Dan Skoda, one of the 190th pilots on the mission. There are also only about 100 year-round personnel that are stationed at Wake, and they immediately implemented the island's disaster plan.

"They assured us that the geography of the reef around the island made the risk of a devastating swell very low," said Skoda. "We had to trust they knew what they were doing.
We certainly had enough time and space on the tankers to evacuate all the personnel off the island."

When the wave did finally strike, the island was spared the disaster that struck Japan. Wake experienced just a two foot swell that caused no damage and the Coyotes were able to complete their mission on schedule. The crews rode out the wave on the roof of their billeting building.

The story was somewhat similar for the 190th crew that was in Hawaii at the time of the tsunami as part of a mission to move two F-15s to a Pacific country.

When Maj. Ryan Strong first learned of the tsunami warning, his first course of action was to gain accountability of his crew and restrict them to their high rise hotel in Waikiki. After discussing a possible unscheduled launch of the aircraft to avoid the tsunami, it was decided that the crews would ride out the wave from their hotel.

But being in an unfamiliar situation, the crews found it difficult to sleep with the approaching wave scheduled to strike at 4:00 a.m. local time. "Every hour there were public safety messages playing over the hotel intercom instructing us to stay in our rooms above the second floor," said Strong. "The streets were empty except for the occasional police vehicle."

Although Hawaii did experience some localized flooding and minor damage from the wave, it was uneventful at Waikiki beach. The biggest impact to the crew was later that morning said Strong.

"We had a 0700 crew show that morning, but there were no taxis or crew transportation due to gas stations being sold out," said Strong. The Coyotes were eventually able to secure transportation and the rest of their mission was uneventful.

Although the tsunami ended up having no negative impacts on the missions, it was still a unique situation that reinforces the professionalism and flexibility aircrews must maintain even on routine missions.

Neither pilot said they ever felt like they were in danger. However, Skoda said, "there was definitely some apprehension on the part of the crew members as we waited for the wave."