EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a first-person account by a C-130H Hercules aircrew member who landed in Kathmandu, Nepal, just moments before a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck the country on April 25.
KATHMANDU, Nepal — We were tasked with taking an 11-man special forces team from Kadena Air Base, Japan, to Kathmandu, Nepal, for a training exercise. After being cleared by air traffic control, we landed uneventfully.
Moments after touching down, we cleared the runway and immediately felt the aircraft begin shaking and rocking. Our initial inclination was that we may have blown a tire, which seemed odd as we were no longer taxiing. Looking across the ramp, we saw half dozen large airliners with their wings swinging wildly and scores of people running away from the aircraft and out of buildings onto the ramp. People were abandoning their vehicles as well as running off stairs that were connected to aircraft.
It became evident the rocking wasn’t something going on only in our aircraft or due to strong winds; looking up at the horizon, dust clouds began popping up all around the bowl-shaped airfield and the city surrounding it. That’s when we realized there had been an earthquake.
Immediately following the earthquake, the airport shut down for a couple hours while Nepalese officials tried to assess whether it was safe to resume normal operations. Though I cannot be positive, I’m sure several airliners, which had been waiting to land, had to divert due to the shutdown.
After we got our aircraft parked and shut down, we spent a couple hours on the ground inside the plane before we could get transportation for our passengers. We ended up driving through downtown and saw some wreckage along the way. The U.S. embassy team was still trying to assess the full scale of the situation with the limited communications capabilities at that time.
The hotel we stayed in that night was full of tourists in the lobby, and the rooms were covered with broken glass from the lights and showers. Water leaked into the rooms from the walls and ceilings, but it was still a welcome place to settle for the night. We swept the glass off our beds onto the floor so we could get some sleep, expecting to leave the next day as planned.
That night, there were several more aftershocks, with one large one around 5 a.m., which ended up being in the 5.6 range. Some aircrew members on the sixth floor were naturally pretty alarmed and reported many more aftershocks throughout the night. In the morning, we awoke to the news that staying at the hotel was no longer viable due to structural damage.
The embassy brought us in to spend the next night there. The embassy had opened its doors not only to Department of Defense and State Department employees and families, but also to any American civilians who happened to be travelling there. It had become a safe haven for Americans waiting to leave Nepal; the airport was crowded with hundreds of people sleeping in makeshift tents that covered the grounds outside the packed terminal.
The city continued to experience tremors that drove many out of buildings. Throngs of people lingered outside and on the streets, afraid to go back into their homes for fear they were structurally unsound after the quakes. Later trips to the airport revealed a city riddled with pockets of devastation caused by the earthquakes.
At the ambassador’s request, we spent about 50 hours on the ground so we could provide evacuations, if required, while they continued to track down Americans throughout the country. The Marine guards at the embassy graciously shared a portion of their office space with us so we could have adequate crew rest. Most of the embassy workers had pulled their families into their cubicle areas to sleep and the American civilians had some sleeping bags strewn about where they could find space.
Due to the influx of international aid and at the request of the airfield manager, we left Kathmandu to make ramp space available. We assumed alert status in Thailand, ready to respond for any evacuation mission that should arise. On April 29, we were alerted to bring a team from the III Marine Expeditionary Force and the Contingency Response Group that had come from Kadena that morning into Kathmandu to evaluate the area and determine what further assets would be required.
We loaded up 22 passengers and 3 pallets and took as much gas as we could safely carry, given our cargo load. As we approached Kathmandu, we were requested to hold for traffic and told to anticipate a 1 1/2- to 2-hour delay, as there were several aircraft in front of us. Since we were fuel-limited at that point, we made regular updates to air traffic control advising them of our time left to emergency fuel, which would have caused us to divert to India with the assessment team.
Fortunately, they were able to give us priority to land. Flying the descent into the airfield with night vision goggles, we noticed the airfield lost lighting momentarily a couple of times, as did a good portion of the city to the south.
We landed and got the team out. We spent more than four hours on the ground getting fuel and trying to work out our air traffic control clearance. We eventually got our duty day waiver approved and were able to fly back to Thailand through the night.
Needless to say, it was an experience I will never forget. As a world leader, the U.S. has a great responsibility to help those in need, particularly when they are devastated by natural disasters like these. As U.S. service members, we are forever grateful for the opportunity to serve our country and partners abroad, however and whenever we can.