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March 12, 2011

On March 11, 2011, a massive undersea earthquake, measuring between 9.0 magnitude, struck off the coast of the Oshika Peninsula in the Tōhoku region of Japan. This event was the strongest earthquake recorded in Japan and the fourth most powerful globally. The earthquake triggered powerful tsunami waves that may have reached heights of up to 133 ft, traveled 435 mph and up to 6 miles inland in certain areas. Residents of Sendai had only eight to ten minutes of warning, and more than a hundred evacuation sites were washed away. The snowfall which accompanied the tsunami, and the freezing temperatures hindered rescue works greatly. Official figures from 2021 reported 19,759 deaths, 6,242 injuries, and 2,553 people missing, with hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes.

"The surveys we conducted from the air a few days ago didn't give us the complete picture of how bad this airport was hit," said. Maj. John Traxler. "We knew there was a substantial amount of debris scattered over the airfield, but when you see it at ground level you fully understand the destruction caused here. I've worked out of several austere and damaged airfields, but this is the most devastated place I've seen."

From the outset, the aim was clear: to coordinate efforts with Japanese counterparts to facilitate the reopening of Sendai Airport, enabling the direct delivery of humanitarian aid to the heart of the disaster area. On March 16, this vision became a reality as the first fixed-wing aircraft landed on Sendai Airport's main runway.

Four days after this pivotal moment, a joint Japanese and American team cleared the entire runway, paving the way for C-17s to land and establish a hub for aid distribution. The reopening of Sendai Airport symbolized hope for the Japanese people, who had previously believed it would remain closed indefinitely.

Restoring Sendai Airport to its pre-tsunami state required extensive cooperation between the Japanese government, Self-Defense Forces, and various branches of the U.S. military and government agencies. A bilateral coordination board was established to oversee operations and plan the transition back to Japanese control.

On April 1, a significant milestone was achieved as U.S. Air Force combat controllers transferred tower operations to Japanese air traffic controllers at Sendai Airport. This marked a pivotal moment in the transition process, signifying the return of operational control to the Japanese authorities.

In those short 21 days, U.S. Air Force combat controllers at Sendai Airport controlled over 250 aircraft from the Air Force, Marines, Army, Navy, and Royal Australian Air Force participating in Operation Tomodachi. Those aircraft delivered more than 2.31 million pounds of humanitarian aid and more than 15,000 gallons of diesel and gasoline to fuel humanitarian convoys and recovery vehicles.

As the final transfer of airport operations took place on April 5, Sendai Airport reopened on April 6 under the full operation of the Japanese people.

Assets/Units involved:

Personnel from the 353 Special Operations Group (SOG) supported Operation TOMODACHI two days later using MC-130P, MC-130H, and PC-12 aircraft. The MC-130s provided forward air refueling capabilities to the area and transportation of AFSOC Special Tactics personnel. The PC-12 ferried 2,160 pounds of cargo and 70 passengers into remote locations to relieve the overtaxed MC-130 aircrews.

320 Special Tactics Squadron (STS) deployed nine Combat Support Teams (CST), eleven Combat Control Teams (CCT), and ten Pararescue Jumpers (PJs) in support of airfield operations at two locations, Matsushima and Sendai, Japan. Operations focused on survey, obstacle clearance, Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) establishment, and airfield control. PJs integrated with the 33rd Rescue Squadron and flew in support of rescue operations.

Operation Photos
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