Meals Ready to Eat are gifts, not toys

AIR FORCE PLAYS SANTA TO SARAJEVO

December 26, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Staff Writer

ON A FLIGHT TO SARAJEVO -- Santa Claus wore a United States Air Force uniform to fly relief flights into Sarajevo Christmas Day.

Only three United Nations humanitarian flights made it into the battered and beleaguered capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina on Christmas. All three were American flights. Capt. Tripp Howard and his six-man crew flew two of them.

They didn't bring very glamorous presents. No toys, no Barbie dolls, no computer games, no Christmas trees. They delivered 75,000 pounds of Meals Ready to Eat, military MREs, to the hungry city.

"It's not the worst way to spend Christmas," said Captain Howard, a big blond man from southern Alabama, "bringing food to starving people."

"It's not the best eating food in the world," he conceded. "But it's got a lot of calories. And if I can eat it, they can eat it."

From the air, Christmas in mostly Muslim Sarajevo looked cold, bleak and cheerless. The temperature was about 20. Snow dusted the hills and lay thick on the mountains.

Captain Howard wasn't bringing any electric blankets either. But Sarajevo has scarcely any electricity anyway.

"It's really weird going into Sarajevo," said John Thornton, a 27-year-old staff sergeant who has flown in 13 times.

"You see houses and fields and burned-out buildings, but you don't see any people," he said. "It's eerie. Hard to imagine what it's like down there."

Hardly anyone met them at the Sarajevo airfield, only a half-dozen United Nations blue-helmet troops and a couple of men driving heavy-duty forklifts. Nobody said, "Merry Christmas."

Captain Howard's plane was only on the ground 11 minutes on the first landing and 14 minutes on the second. Four big pallets of MREs were unloaded both times.

That suited Crew Chief Gregory E. Kudera just fine.

"I'm just hoping they have the holiday spirit and they don't start fighting," he said.

"We had one airplane in here a month ago [and] the whole crew had to abandon the plane," he said. "They took small arms fire inside the plane and mortar rounds hit the field."

The Christmas Day flights were among the half-dozen or so that have landed in Sarajevo since Dec. 1, when a plane from Captain Howard's squadron took a round in the rear.

Captain Howard and most of his crew were volunteers from the 40th Air Lift Squadron, which is based at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina. Volunteers come for a month to fly the U.N. missions into Sarajevo.

They fly veteran C-130 Hercules transports, propeller-driven airplanes as ungainly as Canada geese on the ground but surprisingly agile in the air. They've been around a long time.

"I'm actually older than this one," Captain Howard said. He's 28. His airplane was built in 1968. "About half of them are older than me."

He brought his C-130 into Sarajevo with an "assault landing." That means he dropped the nose of his old workhorse into a steep descent, at 1,200 to 1,500 feet a minute. It was moderately exhilarating.

"That's so the bad guys can't get us," he said.

There are degrees of security at Sarajevo expressed in a color code. Red means you don't land. Yellow land with caution: that means don't land on the end of the runway they're shelling. Green is OK.

Sarajevo airport was yellow briefly yesterday -- there was some mortar fire -- but green for both of the Captain Howard's landings.

He recited a little punning epigram in doggerel.

"Only the stupid come in low over Stupj," he said. Stupj is a town full of bad guys just off the end of the Sarajevo runway.

"We come in steep over Stupj," he said. Stupj is, of course, pronounced "stoop."

"The airplanes were built for putting 'em real hard," he said. "But we try not to bang 'em in."

In fact, he landed it soft and gentle at the end of his assault run into Sarajevo.

Dubbed UN19 for the day, the C130 took off from the big Rhine-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany, at 8:55 a.m. into a cold, slightly hazy sky.

Their flight plan took them over Munich, the Bavarian and Austrian Alps to the Adriatic Coast of Croatia, then into Sarajevo after a left turn at Split, an old resort town that is now a major resupply center for the United Nations.

After their first landing at Sarajevo, they returned to Split for refueling and another load of MREs.

The cockpit crew put on Santa hats with little sprigs of mistletoe on the tassel and posed for pictures in front of their plane. Then they took off for their second flight to Sarajevo.

In late afternoon, Sarajevo was grayer and bleaker and colder. Night drifted down the mountains like a memory of bad dreams. The sad, devastated city remains a good place to leave.

UN19 returned to Rhine-Main in the dark, a sliver of a moon glistening through thick clouds.

"We go back in on New Year's Day," Captain Howard said. "We're the holiday crew."

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