McChord crews to transport dolphins

Tech. Sgt. Heather Normand of Tacoma has loaded a variety of cargo onto jets over the years: food, water, troops, toilet paper, generators, helicopters, Humvees and more.

But the the latest mission for the loadmaster from McChord Air Force Base has an added wrinkle. The cargo will munch on frozen fish throughout the flight.

“Dolphins will be a first for me,” the 33-year-old Normand said Friday. “It’s definitely my most unique cargo so far.”

Two aircrews from McChord’s 446th Airlift Wing leave today for New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific. In an event dubbed Lagoon MINEX 2009, the American military – with a little help from four bottlenose dolphins – is working alongside French, Australian and New Zealand forces to find and destroy more than 200 contact mines in the waters around the island.

The Australians built 12 minefields there during World War II to prevent Japanese ships from reaching New Caledonia ports, where the U.S. had bases.

Ten local airmen from the 446th, a reserve unit, will transport the dolphins from the island back to San Diego, where they make their home at the Navy Marine Mammal Program. Units from Hawaii and California transported the animals to New Caledonia.

The McChord airmen also will haul a monk seal from an aquarium in Hawaii to its new home in Santa Cruz, Calif.

It’s been more than a decade since the 446th has given a lift to dolphins. This cargo is reminiscent of the wing’s most famous passenger. Its airmen transported Keiko the orca, the star of the “Free Willy” movies, to Iceland in 1996.

The Marine Mammal Program uses bottlenose dolphins, California sea lions and beluga whales for various purposes, including mine hunting, protection of military bases and recovery of sunken objects. A full-time staff of veterinarians cares for the animals, which the Navy says “does not now train, nor has it ever trained” for any kind of offensive operations.

Dolphins locate and mark the area of the mines. Navy personnel then remove the animals from the area before disarming the explosives. The animals have been deployed across the world, including to Iraq.

The Navy announced Wednesday that dolphins and sea lions will come to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in 2010 to guard against possible threats from swimmers and divers. The proposal had faced protests, including by a group that called itself “Knitting for Dolphins.” A Navy environmental study determined that the animals would not be harmed by factors such as changes in temperature and noise.

The Navy uses the animals because of their sensory and diving capabilities, according to the Marine Mammal program.

“Dolphins naturally possess the most sophisticated sonar known to man,” its Web site says. “Mines and other potentially dangerous objects on the ocean floor are acoustically difficult targets to detect, especially in murky or dark water. The dolphin’s biosonar system is unmatched in its ability to make accurate detections.”

The 446th Airlift Wing’s flight is considered a training flight. For Normand, the Tacoma loadmaster, the mission presents challenges: The airbase at New Caledonia uses different equipment to load and unload cargo, and there’s the added pressure of handling a live animal.

“It’ll require some creativity,” she said.

The dolphins will be lifted into open-air bins that resemble big bathtubs. The bins are suspended from a sling and filled with enough water to make the dolphin comfortable and allow it to breathe easily. A pump will circulate water throughout the flight.

Total time for the dolphins out of water: 19 to 20 hours.

The monk seal is a tad less picky about his surroundings: The 230-pound animal will fly in a large kennel strapped to the cargo jet’s floor.

The dolphins can’t handle an overnight stay in their cramped conditions, so the wing is sending two aircrews for the delivery. Both crews will fly together to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii; one will continue to New Caledonia while the other stays behind.

After an overnight stay on the island, the airmen will load up the four dolphins and fly to Hickam. The other aircrew will load the monk seal and then take over operation of the jet and fly it to San Diego.

And while it sounds like a fun mini-vacation in the southern hemisphere summer, Normand stresses that it’s anything but. The mission took weeks of planning, and the time on New Caledonia is relatively short – just enough for the crew to rest up, load the dolphins and fly back to Hawaii.

Still, it beats dreary Washington in November.

“It doesn’t get to be fun until I get there,” she said.

Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758