The Ukrainian Children’s Airlift of 1992

  • Published
  • By Terrence G. Popravak, Jr. Lt Col, USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Wing / Historian's Office

Thirty years ago, the 142nd Fighter-Interceptor Group (142nd FIG, now the 142nd Wing) played an important humanitarian role in post-Cold War relations with the former Soviet Union, right after the end of the Cold War. 

In December, 1991, the month that Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union as that nation state collapsed, 111 Ukrainian children who had survived the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident were flown to Portland, Ore.  Sponsored by Portland’s Russian Foursquare Church, the children came to receive medical diagnosis and treatment for any long-term effects of their exposure to nuclear radiation.  

It was a hopeful time, a new era in international relations had begun, and the children, ages 6 through 13, were warmly greeted and cared for during their stay.   An anonymous donor even paid for a trip to Disneyland, though Ms. Mona Spenst  Jordan, then Chief, Public Affairs Office (PAO, then-GS-11) for the 142nd FIG, recalled someone saying that “…they were most impressed with trips through Fred Meyer and other stores, as the shelves were so plentiful.”  The children went shopping and received new clothing and shoes and other items from host families and other individuals supporting the effort.

Returning home to Ukraine was a bit of an issue though.  After a month of medical tests, the children and their adult escorts were stranded in Portland.  Although funds were available to fly the children from New York to Moscow, there emerged an issue with a lack of funding for transportation from Oregon to New York.

The church then intervened on behalf of the children, asking Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield’s office for help, which led to contact with the Oregon Military Department and the 142nd FIG for assistance.  Mona Jordan remembers: “The airlift didn’t  fall into the category that allowed for humanitarian airlift support.  Humanitarian airlift is a complicated process; even more so when being arranged by a unit with single-seat jet fighters as opposed to cargo planes on the ramp.  I remember we wanted to help, but the hoops were many and the track star jumping through them was (then-Col.) Brig. Gen. William F. “Witch” Doctor and the crew in Logistics.”

Brig. Gen. Doctor, a Weapons Systems Officer by trade, was then Executive Support Staff Officer at the Oregon ANG Headquarters in Salem, Oregon.   He recalls “…there was a time crunch to get the children back to NY and to complicate matters, it was a 3-day weekend.  I had been working with NGB International Affairs with a potential State Partnership with Austria so knew a number of key folks in the NGB and DOD.” 

Gen. Doctor continues:  “Prior to this I had assisted Oregon’s Mercy Corp in attempting to make arrangements for them to ship medical supplies thru the DOD to International disasters…I made numerous phone calls over the weekend, at the Military Department, talking to Senator Hatfield’s office, NGB/ANG Operations Center, the DOD 24/7 Operations Center and the New York Port Authority to secure; military transportation to New York, appropriate international clearances and cut thru the “Red’ tape -  no pun intended – to pull a rabbit out of a hat and get these children home.”

This timely and effective coordination between state and federal government led to arrangements for the Air National Guard to help.  With Secretary of Defense approval and the help of the Oregon and Mississippi Air National Guard, a way was found.

While the 142nd FIG handled local transport and mobility-like preparations for departure, Mississippi’s 172nd Military Airlift Group was tasked to make two flights between Portland and New York City on January 20 and 27, respectively.  The unit had Lockheed C-141B Starlifter transports in the western U.S. and was in position at the time to help.

142nd FIG ANG “blue goose” buses transported the children to Portland ANG Base, where the logistics process for passengers took place, efficiently preparing the children and adult passengers for the flight.  Mona Jordan remembers:  “The children were funneled through our little terminal on base.  I stopped at the store on the way to work to get creamer for the little coffee station in the terminal, which was the gathering place for deployments. The first kids swooped in off the bus and proceeded to grab cups and pour the coffee cream to the brim as if it was regular old milk and those that didn’t get any were asking if there was more.  I clearly didn’t get that right.  It all seemed to happen so fast and my Ukrainian was nil.”

It was soon time for some tearful goodbyes from foster families and those waiting for the next flight.  Then the first group took the bus to the flightline to board a waiting C-141.  Aircrew and TV news media with their cameras greeted the children on the ramp as they boarded the Starlifter and were strapped into the familiar sidewall red nylon web troop seats of the aircraft.

Also helping in the effort, Sky Chefs Flight Kitchen at PDX donated 100 meals for each flight.  “Those folks (Sky Chefs) really came through with a wonderful gesture to make this project complete,” said project officer Col. Bill Doctor. 

Then-Lt. Mike Allegre (Maj. retired), the fighter group’s PA Officer, captured the sentiment of the time in an article he wrote for the unit’s newsletter, the Air Scoop.  The pastor of the church, Rev. Leonard Mielnik, expressed his appreciation for the Air National Guard’s help:  “You people are an answer to prayer.  We’re all very grateful,” he said.

Thirty years have gone by, and one can’t help but wonder, hope and pray that these 111 children, many now likely with families and children of their own, will survive the current Russo-Ukrainian War. 

The remarks by Col. Terry “Spike” McKinsey, Commander, 142nd FIG, in the Commander’s Call column of the unit’s February, 1992 Air Scoop Newsletter echo across time.  He reflected on the end of the Cold War and what it meant to those in uniform:  “What does it all mean? … No one knows for sure.  One thing is certain – the best way to posture ourselves to weather the storm is to maintain our combat readiness at a high level, and frankly, hope for the best.” 

In the 30 years since Col. McKinsey made those comments, and as some in the media are calling the current situation a new Cold War, Oregon’s 142nd Wing remains ready to serve the community, state and nation, across the mission spectrum as required, whether with humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, special operations, homeland air defense and/or air superiority.   

Special thanks to Brig. Gen. William F. “Witch” Doctor, USAF (Retired), Maj. Mike Allegre, USAF (Retired) and Ms. Mona Spenst Jordan for their help in the research and preparation of this article.