Tuesday, August 29, 2017

TOP STORY >> Base always ready to help

Leader editor

Col. Gerald A. Donohue, commander of the 19th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, said Monday the base is prepared to provide humanitarian-relief support to the Houston area, where Hurricane Harvey has dumped more than 50 inches of rain, stranding thousands of people.

His airmen are experienced in humanitarian missions. Most recently, in April, they delivered 750,000 pounds of food, water and other supplies to Peru, where more than 1.2 million were displaced by devastating floods.

Little Rock Air Force Base airmen could provide the same relief along the Texas coastline, where millions of people have been affected by massive flooding that has left at least 30 people dead, put 10 oil refineries out of commission, submerged homes and cars and turned highways into raging rivers in a metropolitan area with nearly 7 million people.

More fatalities and more flooding are expected, making Hurricane Harvey one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

“We’ve got aircraft and personnel postured to respond. They put us on the initial alert level to respond. It’s a tragic situation. We are watching it unfold along with every other American, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families. We are ready to do what we are asked to do. My guess is it’s going to be a day or so before getting a sense of where we could even go,” Col. Donohue said.

C-130s are heavy-hauler workhorses that thrive in short landing situations, he noted. C-17s and C-5s, which are also prepared to respond to Houston, may be able to carry larger loads, but C-130s have an easy-in, easy-out capability that could be useful in this crisis. They can land on a 3,000-foot strip as narrow as 60 feet if necessary.

“We are probably the most versatile airframes that have ever flown — one of the most storied aircraft that’s ever flown. If it’s a runway, we can get into it,” Donohue said.

“A relief mission to Houston would mirror what we do on an everyday basis,” he said.

The Arkansas National Guard at Camp Robinson on Monday dispatched 14 members from its 61st Civil Support Team to the Houston area. They will collect soil, water and air samples to detect contaminations.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday two Black Hawk helicopters and two C-130s were also sent to Texas to assist with rescue efforts.

Donohue recalled participating in a similar relief mission in 2002 when Typhoon Pongsona, a Category 4 storm like Hurricane Harvey, battered Guam, causing $730 million in damage across the Micronesian Islands. He flew emergency relief from his base in Tokyo.

Donohue said his airmen and C-130s can be deployed anywhere in the world within 24 hours. The next mission could be to Texas or to any number of hotspots in the world.


Donohue took command of the 19th Airlift Wing in July from Col. Charles Brown, who is now a senior assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO in Belgium.

Donohue was previously commander of the 86th Operations Group at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, “where he commanded the largest and busiest C-130 and operational support aircraft squadrons in the Air Force,” according to his official biography.

As the commander of the host wing of Little Rock Air Force Base, he helps oversee three C-130 wings – the 19th, the 314th and the 189th, plus the 913th Airlift Group, with a combined 58 planes, about 6,000 service members and their families and nearly 1,200 civilian employees.

The annual economic impact for Arkansas from the air base is approximately $469 million, and it’s the state’s seventh largest employer.


Airmen from LRAFB have been constantly deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11. Donohue said about 25 percent of the base’s C-130 crews are deployed overseas.

“We are either sending folks to the Middle East, as we are getting ready to do, or sending them to Africa and Europe,” he said.

“I’m impressed with how our airmen are doing. How the installation is doing, the focus it has on the future,” he said.

“Right now, we can be the center of the C-130 world, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon, but we are looking at ways to increase activity on base,” Donohue said.

The air base continues to train airmen from around he country and from several allied nations.

To add to those responsibilities, Donohue and his wife of more than 20 years, Clara, have six kids at home between the ages of 7 and 16.

“I spent two years here, about 20 percent of my career, although it’s the first time I’m actually stationed in Little Rock. The rest of it’s been temporary. I did have two children born here in North Little Rock,” the colonel said.


One potential new addition for the base is a battlefield airmen training center, where the Air Force could train ground-combat experts. The Pentagon is expected to make a decision on that soon.

The new Battlefield Airmen Training Group is currently consolidating eight such training sites into three or four, according to Air Force Times.

“We’re one of the bases that have been considered for it, and that’s a basing decision that’s ongoing, and we don’t know the outcome just yet,” Donohue said.

“The things that make Little Rock attractive, principally, are the base itself and then the land that we can develop to support that mission as well as the access to various training ranges and air space in the area,” he said.

A battlefield airmen center could bring hundreds of more service members to LRAFB, he said. A decision is expected this month.


Also originally planned for August was the completion of the new $108 million runway. Work has stopped because of a contract dispute and has reduced the length of the runway that can be used for flights. Work is unlikely to resume until at least fiscal year 2019 or 2020.

“It will be a lengthy effort, but one that is absolutely vital,” Donohue said.

“The project has been paused due to some disputes between the government and the contractor. Can’t talk too much about those right now, but after those are resolved we’ll look to continue,” he said.

“Bluntly, there’s been no work on the principal runway itself. So it reduced in length to enable some of the activity to happen, including work on the overrun and the assault zone,” Donohue said.

The base has 7,000 feet of its 12,000 feet of runway open to planes while repairs continue. That’s enough to meet most of its training needs.

“We look forward to getting the full length back, and we’re on track to getting 12,000 feet back by next summer, which should support the base for about a year or so before we relaunch the initiative to revitalize the runway,” he said.

That timeline should allow for the return of the base’s air show, which has not been held to accommodate the runway construction.


“We should be in really good shape for the air show in October (2018). Even if we only have a portion of the runway back, the Thunderbirds have evaluated the use of Bill and Hillary International Airport if they can’t operate out of here,” Donohue said.

He appreciates the community support of his airmen and their spouses and children, especially during times of deployment.

“It’s been absolutely tremendous. We had a dinner for our deployed family members recently. I was just amazed with the outpouring of support we received from the local community. They came out, helped with the dinner, gave families whose members were deployed the opportunity to get together, share stories,” Donohue said.

He thanked area chambers of commerce for helping organize and volunteer those dinners.

“I have been really awestruck by the support we’ve received and the warm support that my family and I have received since we arrived. It’s been absolutely tremendous from the change of command all the way till now,” he said.

Donohue graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1995. He is a command pilot who has flown 500 combat and combat-support hours in support of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was commander of the 386th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron in Qatar from 2011-12.

His medals include the Bronze Star Medal, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal with three oak leaf clusters, Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters, Aerial Achievement Medal with one oak leaf cluster, Air Force Commendation Medal with one oak leaf cluster, Air Force Achievement Medal with two oak leaf clusters.