A C-17 Globemaster III delivers humanitarian aid from Homestead ARB, Fla., to Cucuta, Colombia, on Feb. 16, 2019. Air Force Photo by TSgt. Gregory Brook.
The world was watching the situation in Venezuela in mid-February as three USAF C-17s loaded their supplies on the south Florida runway.
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido had declared himself the acting leader of the country following a contested presidential election the month before, but president Nicolas Maduro has refused to cede power. Protests raged throughout the country, which faces widespread poverty and shortages of food and medicine.
The US State Department announced it would deliver aid to the border of Colombia and Venezuela, and the three C-17s—two from JB Charleston, S.C., and one from JB McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.—received the tasking from US Transportation Command and immediately got to work.
“It was an honor to be part of this mission to help out the Venezuelan people,” Lt. Col. Amilcar Melendez-Cruz, the assistant director of operations for Charleston’s 15th Airlift Squadron and the mission commander for the flight, told Air Force Magazine. “We were full of pride to have been part of what the intent of the mission was for the US government. The intent wasn’t just to help out the people of Venezuela, but also … just to show the US Air Force and the US in general is ready, willing, and able.”
At Homestead ARB, Fla., the C-17s were loaded and prepared for the flight. Under Denton Amendment flights, airlift of donated aid on USAF flights, Globemasters regularly fly aid to South America. But this mission was different.
Maduro had announced the country would reject all foreign aid, and the military had spread across the country. That military has an air force with dozens of modern fighter aircraft, and thousands of Russian-made surface-to-air missiles. Additionally, the airfield picked for the high-profile flight is just about one mile from the border.
“This was unique because of the intelligence situation down there, and the ever-changing aspect of that,” Air Mobility Command boss Gen. Maryanne Miller told Air Force Magazine. “So our intelligence was deeply involved in what our crews would encounter as they got closer, particularly with protests in the area. It was a great collaborative effort between the planning cell and crews.”
For days in advance of the flight, RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft, supported by USAF tankers, flew long missions surveilling Venezuela. The RC-135’s mission focuses on signals intelligence, and the aircraft was flying as the Venezuelan military was reportedly deploying missile systems to the north of the country.
In a classified teleconference at Homestead’s fighter operations building, C-17 crews and Air Mobility Command’s intelligence operations held a briefing on the threats.
“It wasn’t … the normal type of C-17 run that we do to South America, or to Colombia specifically.” Melendez-Cruz said. “This included going to a field that was on the border with Venezuela, so there was some concern about dealing with Venezuela, Venezuelan airspace, different friendly and non-friendly assets. We did have to get an intelligence briefing, and there was a lot of coordination between AMC intelligence and SOUTHCOM.”
While he couldn’t specifically say what the briefing focused on, he said, “We were ready for it.”
Additionally, since the landing was at a small field so close to an unfriendly nation, the C-17s were loaded with Phoenix Raven teams—specialized armed security forces airmen who protect aircraft while on the ground in potentially dangerous areas. AMC also included contingency response airmen on the flights because the small airfield and quick turnaround required an “intricate dance” of large C-17s landing in a tight sequence and finding space to unload, Miller said.
After a three-hour flight from Homestead to Cucuta, the C-17s touched down, using one runway for flying operations and the other to offload due to a lack of ramp space. The flights also carried South American news media, and a C-17 was set up as a backdrop for a stage to show off the US bringing the aid as a message to Venezuela.
Melendez-Cruz, as the mission commander, arrived on the first flight to touch down and left on the last plane to leave. The C-17s spent about six hours on the ground before returning to Homestead. Six other AMC aircraft—four C-17s and two C-130s—also flew in aid.
While the flight was different from other aid missions, it is a regular part of what the C-17 does, Melendez-Cruz said. Charleston C-17s fly diverse missions around the world, in US Southern Command, US Central Command, and US European Command, as well as supporting presidential movements to the Pacific. The flight is “exactly the mission we do here. We provide safe, precise, and reliable airlift,” he said.
“We were ready for this, we train for this,” he said. “This wasn’t something that was out of our realm, or our scope of our ability. And we were more than happy to do it.”