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U.S. planes hauling tons of supplies

American humanitarian flight into Iran on Sunday was historic

From Barbara Starr
CNN Washington Bureau

Iranian soldiers unload cooking stoves and other aid from a Ukrainian cargo plane at Kerman airport southeast of Bam on Monday.
Iranian soldiers unload cooking stoves and other aid from a Ukrainian cargo plane at Kerman airport southeast of Bam on Monday.

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U.S. Air Force

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. military has conducted a dozen humanitarian aid missions to earthquake-ravaged Iran so far. The latest flight dropped off another shipment of supplies Monday.

Military officials said 168.5 tons of material have been flown into the airfield at the provincial capital of Kerman, including medical supplies, food, water and blankets.

Another top priority is providing shelter for the injured and displaced, one senior U.S. official said.

The first flight into Iran, on Sunday, was historic because the United States has not had diplomatic relations with the country for more than two decades.

The split took place after militants, stirred by anti-American sentiment during the Islamic revolution that overthrew Reza Shah Pahlavi, took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Since the military had little familiarity with the Kerman airfield, the initial flight carried experts to look at its logistical, navigational and refueling capabilities, U.S. Air Force officials said.

One Air Force official acknowledged that given the lack of knowledge there was some "apprehension," but that the crews were "pleasantly surprised" that everything went smoothly.

Military officials quickly discovered the Iranians did not have the cargo-handling equipment to offload the large amounts of supplies, so they brought their own on subsequent flights.

Planes delivering supplies and personnel from at least 21 countries have converged on the Kerman airfield, and U.S. officials said the large number of aircraft and vehicles has overwhelmed the facility.

Women covered heads

U.S. servicewomen who participated in the mission wore dark caps covering their hair partially in deference to Iranian religious sensitivities, one U.S. military official said.

Cold weather also played a factor, but the official said there had been informal discussions with the Iranians about the matter.

Pictures released by the Pentagon showed servicewomen with their hair covered working with Iranians to unload cargo aircraft.

The official said to his knowledge none of the women declined to wear the caps and all of them were eager to participate in the relief mission.

Shoulder to shoulder

The official also offered more details about Sunday's historic flight.

The airport at Kerman is an international airfield and some information was available from standard civil aviation materials. The U.S. military knew it could accommodate C-130, and C-17 cargo aircraft.

Before takeoff, the military knew the length of the runways, weight restrictions, and the geographical layout of the field and surrounding terrain, according to the official.

For reasons not immediately clear, however, U.S. aircraft could not fly any of the published instrument approaches and had to operate only under visual flight rules.

The crew was issued night vision goggles but did not use them. The flight's arrival and departure were uneventful, the official said. There were no fighter escorts and visibility was good, the official said.

The U.S. Air Force crew said Iranian air traffic controllers spoke English well and were very professional.

When the plane landed early Sunday, however, the U.S. crew said the aprons and taxiways were so congested that finding a place to park the plane was difficult. Crew members had to push a Lear jet out of the way by hand so their plane could taxi.

Because the airfield only had one small forklift, the supplies had to be offloaded by hand, with Iranians and Americans standing shoulder to shoulder in order to form a human chain, according to the official.

The airfield remains busy with 24-hour operations. The U.S. military official said the Iranians continue to be "gracious, warm, and receptive to the aid."

The military expects to withdraw its involvement when the last U.S. flight leaves.

So far, the U.S. flights have included: one C-130 from Tallil, Iraq, carrying 11 tons; three C-130s from Ali Al Salem, Kuwait, together carrying 37 tons; five C-130s and a C-17 from Al Udeid, Qatar, carrying 71.5 tons; and one C-5 from Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, to Kuwait carrying 49 tons.

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