TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Condensation begins to build inside the C-5M Super Galaxy’s cabin. The tropical air enveloping the air frame is hot and dense. The crew members begin to glisten in the afternoon swelter of Managua, Nicaragua. It’s a stark contrast from their labor in the minus 1 degree temperature of Minneapolis, Minnesota, not even 24 hours earlier. A collective flutter of suspense passes through the aircraft. Knees bounce to phantom tempos as the aircraft taxis into Augusto C. Sandino International Airport; the minutes until the crew executes its time-sensitive mission run down to zero. From the flight deck, the pilots can see a crowd of on-lookers, Nicaraguans anticipating the same moment.
As the aircraft slows to a stop, the crew members – Airmen from the 22nd Airlift Squadron, 60th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and the 60th Security Forces Squadron – move abruptly into action, eyes transfixed on their tasks, hardly a word passing between them. A palpable aura of resolution and unspoken trust in each other’s capability unites them, and like a well-oiled machine, they move as one. Their mission is paramount: deliver humanitarian aid.
“It’s awesome, you know?” said Capt. Jeff Asper, 22nd Airlift Squadron C-5M Super Galaxy pilot. “We brought firefighting equipment from Minnesota, some fire trucks, some ambulances, and a tractor.” He flies the U.S. Air Force’s largest aircraft, capable of hauling 84 tons of cargo.
In ordinary circumstances, the logistic complications and finances involved in getting donations like these from “Point A to Point B” often inhibit the process all together, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council website. However, Travis Airmen were able to assist through the Denton Program – a Department of Defense initiative that allows private organizations to use extra space on military vessels to transport aid; in this case, six vehicles furnished by the Wisconsin Nicaragua Partners were delivered to the country’s volunteer emergency service force in January 2020.
“We really appreciate all the help from the Denton Program and the flight from the military,” said Jaime Delgado, president of the Civil Association of Volunteer Firefighters of Nicaragua. “This is an effort of more than 50 years, and it’s helping so many people in Nicaragua. These flights are a very important project, and it’s been saving so many lives.”
Only a third of Nicaragua’s firefighting force is federally-funded. The remaining percentile operates on a volunteer basis, which makes maintaining resources an uphill battle.
“These particular donations help Nicaraguan volunteers in their communities to do things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do,” said U.S. Ambassador Kevin Sullivan, ambassador to Nicaragua. “They’re dedicated professionals, but a lot of times they don’t have the heavy equipment they need to accomplish their missions, and these generous donations help them bridge that gap.”
The flight, however, wasn’t only to transport aid. The Airmen took advantage of the unique opportunity to handle vehicles not standard for the C-5 to conduct various types of aircrew training, including building custom vehicle clearance ramps for the event.
“We had 18 people, which is a huge crew,” said Asper. There were seven student loadmasters, and they were getting in the books and running all their numbers. It was cool. It wasn’t a lot of extra work for us to do this, training-wise, and it was really good learning for everybody. It’s beneficial for us as well as the people we can help.”
As the steamy day began to settle into a balmy dusk, the Airmen spent the remaining daylight hours working hand-in-hand with the volunteer firefighters to off-load the cargo and accomplish the mission, not only sharing in efforts, but also building connections.
“These (missions), to me, are so much more rewarding than anything,” said Asper. “This plane is huge and to fill it with things that really make people happy and make their lives better, right then, right there… It’s so rewarding to see the smiles on these people’s faces. Who doesn’t like to give?”