Operation Biglift

by Daniel L. Haulman

Operation Name: Operation Biglift
Location: California and Oregon
Date: December 22, 1964–January 22, 1965
Emergency: Heavy rain flooded the west coast, cutting surface transportation routes and leaving 48 people dead and 17,000 homeless.
Organizations: 349th, 442d, 446th, and 512th Troop Carrier Wings; 9th Strategic Airlift Wing; 146th Air Training Wing; 3635th Flying Training Wing; 908th, 912th, 914th, 917th, 924th, 925th, and 939th Troop Carrier Groups; 129th Air Commando Group; 4560th Combat Support Group; 408th Fighter Group; 4650th Special Air Mission Squadron; Detachment 9, Western Air Rescue Center; West Transport Air Force (unspecified units); and Air Force Flight Test Center (unspecified units)
Airlifted: 1,598 tons of food, clothing, bedding, fuel, hay, grain, vehicles, pipe, medical supplies, sandbags, and mail; and 522 passengers.
Aircraft Used: C–119 (172), KC–97 (13), UH–19 (12), C–130 (12), CH–21 (9), C–124 (7), C–123 (6), CH–43 (5), H–43 (2), U–6 (2), H–19 (1), C–47 (1), CH–3 (1), VT–29 (1), and CH–47 (1)

Pacific storms dropped a heavy, steady rain on Oregon and northern California during the last two weeks of December, producing flooding similar to that which had devastated the area nine years earlier. The Klamath, Eel, Mad, Van Duzen, Salmon, Smith, and Russian Rivers spilled over their banks, inundating homes, farms, forests, and factories in the “Redwood Empire.” The downpours caused landslides and washed away at least 26 bridges, isolating communities in Humboldt, Del Norte, Siskiyou, and Mendocino Counties in northern California.

Governors Edmund G. Brown of California and Mark Hatfield of Oregon declared the flooded regions disaster areas. On December 22, civil defense officials asked the Sixth Army for military assistance. Sixth Army headquarters at the Presidio in San Francisco established a joint emergency operations center and called for an airlift of food and relief supplies to areas where surface transportation routes were cut.

On December 23, the Sixth Air Force Reserve Region established an airlift command post at Hamilton AFB, California, under Brig. Gen. Jack A. Gibbs. Air Force Reserve participation was directed by Lt. Gen. Edward J. Timberlake from CONAC headquarters at Robins AFB, Georgia. The 349th Troop Carrier Wing (AF Reserve) at Hamilton AFB conducted the bulk of the airlift, using C–119 aircraft to haul supplies from California bases—to which cargo was delivered by other Air Force organizations—to Humboldt County Airport at Arcata, California, about 215 miles north of San Francisco. Four troop carrier wings and seven troop carrier groups of other wings constituted the bulk of Air Force reserve resources committed to the airlift.

Between December 23 and January 22, more than 200 Air Force cargo planes delivered 522 passengers and 1,598 tons of cargo, including food rations, clothing, fuel, sandbags, blankets, hay, grain, medical supplies, mail, vehicles, and pipe. Fifteen types of aircraft—including C–119s, KC–97s, UH–19s, C–130s, CH–21s, C–124s, and C–123s—from California, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Washington participated in Operation Biglift. The aircraft represented CONAC (AF Reserve and Air National Guard), MATS, SAC, the Air Training Command, and the Air Defense Command.

In one month, the Air Force flew 318 sorties for the emergency, using 996 flying hours. Some relief supplies were airdropped to isolated victims in Oregon. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard aircraft, especially helicopters, contributed to the overall relief efforts, coordinated by the Sixth Army at the Presidio. Operation Biglift ended on January 22 with the reopening of most surface transportation routes in northern California and western Oregon.

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