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Keesler air crew part of airdrop into MLB stadium

JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD 
 C-130s at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi assigned to the 403rd wing including the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron's Hurricane Hunters and the Flying Jennies of the 815th Airlift Squadron.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD C-130s at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi assigned to the 403rd wing including the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron's Hurricane Hunters and the Flying Jennies of the 815th Airlift Squadron. SUN HERALD

BILOXI — A Keesler Air Force Base air crew and weather-reconnaissance squadron are back home on the Coast today after separate missions last week that included an air drop into a Major League Baseball stadium.

As part of an effort to increase military recruitment, members of the 815th Airlift Squadron C-130J Super Hercules, the “Flying Jennies,” joined forces with the U.S. Navy Parachute Team “Leap Frogs,” an elite 15-person active-duty unit of specialized Navy SEALs and Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen commandos.

The 815th out of Keesler transports supplies, equipment and personnel in and around a theater of operation. It flies 10 C-130J aircraft, the prime transport for airdropping troops and equipment into hostile areas.

The Leap Frogs are trained to jump out of aircraft at altitudes of 12,500 feet. In Philadelphia, they jumped from an altitude well below that — about 4,500 feet.

On the day of the Philadelphia Phillies’ home opener April 11, the two teamed up and members of the Leap Frogs parachuted into the stadium. They participated in similar high-profile stunts at sporting events in the Knoxville, Tenn., area.

Bringing the team up

“This was great for the morale of the squadron,” 815th AS commander Lt. Col. Stuart Rubio said in a press release, “and jumps like this are in our mission set, so it was an opportunity for us to train. It was a win-win for everyone.”

Not so long ago, the fate of the 815th was uncertain.

Since 2013, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and members of the state’s congressional delegation have led efforts to persuade the Air Force to reverse a decision to deactivate the 815th and transfer its C-130Js. The decision led the Air Force to reduce airlift-squadron personnel at Keesler.

Two years later, the Air Force rescinded the deactivation order. Cochran has since focused on rebuilding the staffing required to execute this airlift mission at Keesler.

The squadron is expected to be at full strength by 2019.

403rd Wing Commander Col. Frank L. Amodeo said, “The 815th is in its nascent stages right now. So for us to have the opportunity to be involved with these (public relations) events was motivation for the crew. It represents the stand up of the 815th,” he said.

Meanwhile, the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron “Hurricane Hunters” spent the week in parts of Mexico and the Caribbean as part of an annual hurricane-preparedness mission.

A long tour

On Monday, the Hurricane Hunters returned to the Coast after touring with a team of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hurricane forecasters as part of the annual Caribbean Hurricane Awareness Tour.

Designed to promote hurricane awareness and preparedness throughout the region, the tours build partnerships with regional neighbors’ meteorological services, civil protection agencies, elected officials and media partners, Amodeo said.

But the tours aren’t just about hurricane education, he said.

“There’s more going on there; it’s a humanitarian mission as well,” he said. “We’re showing the flag to these other countries as a sign of participation with them,” he said.

NOAA is equipped with the satellite and technical equipment to track and monitor hurricanes. Spreading that information quickly can save lives, especially in the areas the Hurricane Hunters traveled to last week.

The teams visited Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the British Virgin Islands.

In the case of Puerto Rico, it’s essential to have a strong hurricane-preparedness plan in place, Amodeo said. “Not all places are the same. If you live on an island, it’s obviously not so much about having an evacuation plan.”

Dispensing information

During their stop in Puerto Rico, Amodeo said, a crowd of 10,000 to 11,000 people — mostly kids — came out to greet them.

“They came to look at the plane,” he said. “But it’s amazing how quickly and eagerly the kids pick up the information. That’s great because they go home and tell their family what they learn.” 

“The key to this tour,” National Hurricane Director Rick Knabb said, “is encouraging people to prepare in advance, before the next hurricane while the weather is still good, because figuring out your hurricane plan is very difficult when the hurricane is on your doorstep.”

The tours have been going on since the 1970s.

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