National Security

Air Force flying a different breed of warrior: dolphins

TACOMA, Wash. _ 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.

The latest mission for the loadmaster from McChord Air Force Base has an added wrinkle, however. 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 Saturday 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 laid 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.

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