MEDAN, Indonesia, Jan. 1 -- Two U.S. Air Force Hercules C-130 cargo airplanes -- workhorses of war, calamity and humanitarian relief -- were parked Saturday on the runway here, the only two such American aircraft operating in Indonesia, where hundreds of thousands of people are desperate for clean water, food and shelter in the wake of last Sunday's earthquake and tsunami.
Inside a hangar perhaps 200 yards away, bags of rice, boxes of instant noodles and cases of bottled water were piled halfway to the rafters, waiting to be loaded onto planes en route to the worst-hit areas on the island of Sumatra.
Refugees reach out for food donations at the airport in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. "The stuff is here, but it's not getting to people quickly enough," said a worker who arrived from South Africa. "Definitely, people are dying."
(Abdullah Azam -- AP)
But the American crews stood listlessly in the tropical night, frustrated by forces beyond their control. They waited for scarce loading pallets. They waited for the lone forklift used to load and unload a half-dozen relief planes from several countries. Then they waited for a crew of Indonesian soldiers to help load the supplies the only way available -- by hand, box by box.
Even after the planes were finally loaded, they sat and waited some more: The runway at Banda Aceh -- capital of Aceh province, hard-hit by the disaster -- was at that moment crammed with seven other planes. There was no room for another. Until one left, the American crews had to sit on the ground in Medan without clearance to leave.
"It's still not as organized as I think it should be," said Sgt. Henry Williams, an aircraft maintenance technician on one of the two Hercules planes.
As the United States, other nations and private groups marshal a relief effort of about $2 billion aimed at preventing disease and hunger among victims of the catastrophe, operations are being slowed by inadequate numbers of airplanes, scarce loading facilities and poor coordination, according to relief workers, diplomats and crews engaged in the mission.
"Look at all this stuff," said trauma expert Bertus Louw, who had just flown in with a team from the South African nongovernmental emergency aid group Global Relief. "The stuff is here, but it's not getting to people quickly enough. Definitely, people are dying."
Louw's team of 12 -- among them doctors, divers and engineers -- carried water purification systems, a key element in the effort to prevent the spread of disease. Yet after being told there was room for them on board an American plane, they were informed the flight was full and that they would have to wait here indefinitely.
"There are definitely not enough airplanes," said Imam Rahmadsyah, a volunteer with an Indonesian rescue-and-medical team. Beyond airlift, there are many other more daunting problems, such as how to distribute the supplies to scattered, devastated communities where roads, electricity and communications, never good, are now in ruins.
On Wednesday, the United States convened a joint task force drawn from all branches of the U.S. military to oversee its contribution to the humanitarian airlift, establishing a headquarters at the Utapao Air Base in Thailand, a facility where U.S. B-52 bombers were based during the Vietnam War era. Officials are now employing what they describe as a wheel-and-spoke system, running cargo sorties from Utapao and Bangkok to hubs near the hardest-hit areas of Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka.
By Saturday, the mission had flown nine sorties from Utapao, using six Hercules planes with another four C-130s from Bangkok. Six more were expected to arrive over the weekend, U.S. officials said.
The Navy was operating a fleet of 10 P-3 reconnaissance aircraft from Diego Garcia, seeking to identify runways that could be used for the airlift. In the waters near the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln was sending helicopters to ferry relief into areas beyond the reach of airplanes.
In an interview Saturday in Utapao, the commander of the U.S. Air Force complement of the task force, Col. Rod Gregory, said he was satisfied with the progress of the mission. "Given the limited amount of time that things have been going on, I would characterize it as outstanding," Gregory said. "Everything we need is on the way and we're going to continue building up our capability."
The director of operations of the 36th Airlift Squadron, Lt. Col. Chuck Eastman, dismissed talk of shortages. "The infrastructure is in place," he said. "There is no impediment to us getting this done other than the sheer magnitude. . . . I'm getting everything I need."
But a 10-hour journey in a Hercules from Utapao to Banda Aceh on Saturday demonstrated the obstacles. Time and again, a crew that seemed eager to deliver relief was confronted with yet another delay.
The plane took off from Utapao just after 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, its cargo hold mostly empty. It was to pick up supplies here in Medan, a nearly three-hour flight south, then carry them to Banda Aceh, on the northernmost tip of Sumatra. Eastman said the maintenance facilities and communications were good at the base in Thailand, but putting a hub there would mean hours of empty flying. At the controls this afternoon sat Capt. Jenn Clavenna, 28, an Alexandria native now based in Japan. She found out only on Monday that she was to be shipped to Thailand the next day for the emergency airlift.
"They told us to pack for a week or two," she said. "We're kind of here indefinitely."
A day earlier, she had flown her first mission to Banda Aceh. The site had overwhelmed her -- destroyed buildings, shores utterly flattened, masses of people waiting near the landing strip for help. "There are tons of people there, all waiting for the supplies," she said.
By the time the plane landed in Medan at about 7:30 p.m. Saturday, the sun had set. Indonesian officials and foreign aid workers stood by. Another U.S. Air Force Hercules sat waiting for clearance to take off for Banda Aceh. An Indonesian Hercules unloaded 160 refugees from western Sumatra. They carried meager belongings in plastic bags, their faces full of shock and exhaustion.
For the newly arrived U.S. Hercules, what was billed as a one- to two-hour load time quickly stretched to three hours.
"We've had planes sitting here four and five hours," said a Western diplomat who spoke on the condition that he not be identified by name. Indonesians assisted the American crew in loading 500 body bags, 4,200 jerrycans and plastic tarps for shelter.
This was the first time that missions were being flown at night, a response to congestion at what is one of Indonesia's busier airports. According to the Western diplomat and aid workers, there has been little coordination between commercial aircraft and the humanitarian airlift, resulting in additional delays.
At 9:30 p.m., the loading continued. "If things were efficient, we'd be done in half an hour," the diplomat said. "It's already taken two hours."
At 10:30 p.m., the loading was finally complete. But then the Medan control tower radioed news of traffic at Banda Aceh, where the unloading was very slow. There were seven planes on the ground and one forklift.
At midnight, the crew piled into the bench seats. The plane remained on the ground. Some slept, others fiddled with computer games. Some drank from bottles of purified water and ate cookies.
It was nearly 1 a.m. when the plane finally took off and nearly 2 a.m. when the wheels hit the runway in Banda Aceh. No forklift was in sight. Indonesian soldiers plucked the boxes from the hold, formed a line and passed the goods to a waiting truck.