The U.S. military is boosting its flood-relief capabilities to Pakistan by deploying more aircraft and increasing the number of aid distribution stations in the flood-stricken nation, the Pakistan aid task force commander said here yesterday.
“We are on the verge of making a substantial change in the composition of our aviation task force,” said Army Brig. Gen. Michael Nagata, Office of the Defense Representative – Pakistan (Forward) commander.
Nagata said the number of U.S. helicopters in Pakistan will almost double in coming weeks, as 18 Army helicopters from the 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade arrive. Since early August, U.S. military helicopters have been operating from Ghazi Aviation Base here, providing relief supplies to the remote Swat Valley in northern Pakistan where many bridges on the valley floor were washed away by the flood.
Nagata said the incoming Army helicopters will continue the Swat Valley relief mission. Marine and Navy helicopters from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit currently operating from the aviation base here will be relocated to an aviation base in the south of the country in coordination with the government and military of Pakistan.
“These helicopters will soon begin relief operations in southern Pakistan,” Nagata said. “They will continue the great work they have done up here to help people in a new area who have been devastated by the flood.”
The Army helicopters, predominantly CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopters, are well suited to the high altitudes of the Swat Valley, the general said.
Nagata said the U.S. military has over the past week worked with the government of Pakistan to maximize current assets by selecting several new sites for relief deliveries and distribution.
Marine and Air Force C-130 cargo airplanes are delivering food and fuel into areas of northern Pakistan at airfields in Gilgit and Skardu.
“We hope to increase the volume of these C-130 deliveries at the request of the government of Pakistan in coming days and weeks,” Nagata said.
Additionally, the helicopters based at Ghazi have expanded operations into Kohistan. One stop in Kohistan is the small town of Otero, nestled deep in the mountains and accessible by a single-lane road that was severely damaged by the floods. Although flooding has largely subsided in the northern region of the country, the damage to infrastructure makes continued relief missions vital.
Otero “is completely cut off from the rest of civilization,” Nagata said. “We made five runs into Otero yesterday, delivering on the order of 30,000 pounds of relief supplies and recovering several hundred people out of the town. It’s emblematic of how deep the need is and how devastated these areas are.”
The general credited the U.S. military helicopter pilots for “extraordinarily skillful flying” as they braved challenging landing zones to deliver badly needed relief supplies to Otero.
Nagata said the flight tempo “remains high” since Pakistan relief operations began last month. More than 2 million pounds of relief supplies have been flown into Pakistan, he said, noting 8,000 Pakistanis have been rescued by the helicopters currently at Ghazi. The helicopters are from of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit and consist of Navy MH-53 Sea Dragons, Marine CH-53 Sea Stallions and CH-46 Sea Knights.