From the cockpit, Maj. Joseph Barney watched tracer bullets and firefights on the dark Iraqi landscape far below as he and other Charlotte-based airmen flew to Mount Sinjar to drop food and water to starving refugees stranded there.
Barney and about 100 other members of the N.C. National Guard’s 145th Airlift Wing left in June for a three-month deployment to the Mideast. This week, the Air Force acknowledged the 145th was among the units tapped in the massive relief effort two weeks ago to drop food and water to tens of thousands of refugees trapped by Islamist fighters from the Islamic State on the rugged mountain in northwest Iraq near the Syrian border.
Barney, a pilot for eight years with the 145th who lives in Badin, said none of the fire was directed at his C-130, which was escorted by U.S. carrier-based fighters, but ground battles between Iraqi forces and insurgents were crisply visible through his night-vision gear.
In a telephone interview Tuesday with the Observer from an undisclosed air base in the region, Barney said that the 145th often practices air drops, which involve ejecting pallets attached to parachutes out the rear of the C-130 from several thousand feet and having them hit small landing zones. Guardsmen fly from Charlotte to the Stanly County Airport near Albemarle and practice drops in an area nearby.
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While Barney and others in the 145th are accustomed to dropping supplies in combat situations during their overseas rotations, this was the first international humanitarian mission he could recall the unit getting assigned to.
“People up there had no supplies of any kind,” Barney said. “It was a life-and-death situation for them. We are were glad to be part of that.”
First Lt. Jonathan Hallman, who has been with the airlift wing for four years and lives in Belmont, was Barney’s navigator.
In a telephone interview, Hallman said the drop zone for the mission was about 800 by 2,000 yards in a relatively flat area of the mountain. As the C-130s approached the mountain, a drop point was calculated, taking winds into account so the 800-pound pallets would land where intended.
When the order to drop was given, Barney pulled up the nose of the cargo plane about 7 degrees and loadmasters in the rear cut the restraints holding the pallets in place. They rolled out the rear door of the aircraft to the refugees below.
All the cargo appeared to land on target, Hallman and Barney said.
“It was pretty neat to execute one of these missions with a strictly Charlotte crew, with three planes from Charlotte,” said Hallman.
Five Charlotte-based crews flew nighttime C-130 missions to bring supplies to the refugees during the weeklong relief effort. U.S. military aircraft delivered more than 114,000 meals and more than 35,000 gallons of fresh drinking water, according to Central Command. At least one pallet flew with an unofficial component: a teddy bear for a child was strapped aboard.
Following bombings by U.S. war planes, the insurgents’ grasp on Mount Sinjar was broken, the refugees were able to move on, and the humanitarian missions ended.