Before dawn on March 24, the 987-foot-long oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound about 25 miles from Valdez, Alaska. Submerged rocks ruptured eight of the giant ship’s 11 cargo tanks, spilling more than 10 million of the vessel’s 53 million gallons of crude oil. Within days, an oil slick covered hundreds of square miles in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska, creating an environmental disaster as wind blew the oil onto beaches.
Responding to a request for help from the Exxon Corporation to ship to Alaska heavy cleanup equipment from California, Texas, and Virginia, the Department of Transportation sought help from MAC. Exxon agreed to pay MAC for a massive airlift, which eventually cost almost $4 million. The airlift began on March 27, when a 60th Military Airlift Wing C–5 transported two Navy oil skimmers from Travis AFB, California, to Elmendorf AFB near Anchorage, Alaska.
In early April, President George Bush directed DoD to help contain the environmental disaster, and Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney of the Alaskan Air Command headed an Alaska oil spill joint task force that included elements of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. McInerney continued to rely on MAC airlift.
Between March 27 and early May, 17 C–5, four C–141, and four C–130 missions transported more than 1,000 tons of equipment and supplies to Alaska for the cleanup operation. Flown by the 60th, 63d, 436th, and 438th Military Airlift Wings and by the 176th Tactical Airlift Group, the cargo aircraft moved items such as helicopters, landing craft, rubber boats, tow rigs, oil booms, oil skimmers, and buoys from Portland, Oregon; Houston, Texas; Norfolk, Virginia; and Air Force bases in California, Delaware, and New Jersey. Some equipment came from Exxon Corporation facilities in the continental U.S. and some from DoD. One of the bulkiest items to be transported on a C–5 was a 16-foot-long buoy that weighed eight tons.
Maj. John Sutton and his crew from the 709th Military Airlift Squadron flew the most unusual mission in a 436th Military Airlift Wing C–5 Galaxy when they transported 19 pallets of oil spill cleanup equipment from Billund, Denmark, and Helsinki, Finland, to Alaska, using a polar route that required refueling in Iceland. The Scandinavian-based equipment was on hand for oil spills in the North Sea.
Most of the 25 C–5, C–141, and C–130 airlift flights landed at Elmendorf AFB, where they were unloaded by the 616th Aerial Port Squadron. Trucks transported the cargo to Valdez, headquarters of the cleanup operation.
Airlift was only one facet of the military disaster relief resulting from the Exxon Valdez spill. Many Navy ships also played an important role in General McInerney’s joint task force. Although the MAC effort ended in early May after about six weeks, the cleanup continued until mid-September. Even then, southern Alaska would require years to recover from the worst oil spill in North American history.