2nd Lt. Alysia English
Public Affairs Officer
When the sun comes up each day over Puerto Rico, Civil Air Patrol members from the Southeast and Middle East regions of the continental U.S. are already on their way to the local mission base.
The hours are long and the conditions, rudimentary, but Lt. Col. William Wallace of the Georgia Wing, incident commander, says he has never before been so proud of a group. “In situations where ‘normal’ is gone, the true test of people and capability comes to the forefront," Wallace said.
"Clearly, our Civil Air Patrol training has prepared our personnel to respond to situations just like this. This is an evolving situation, and our staff is performing above and beyond all reasonable expectations,” he said.
The island of Puerto Rico was devastated by a glancing blow from Hurricane Irma on Sept. 7 and then a direct hit by Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20. CAP members from the U.S. mainland have been on the Caribbean island for nearly three weeks now, working with members of the Puerto Rico Wing to support the federal response to Hurricane Maria. The challenges wrought by the Category 5 storm are many, but progress is being made.
“When we arrived, none of us were exactly sure what to expect," Wallace said. "So many things we take for granted are literally put together down here with a wing and a prayer. It is a highly stressed environment on all fronts. CAP is working to re-establish our repeaters and mission base communications capability. In the meantime, we are still getting the job done.
“It is important for everyone to know that the island is dealing not only with the hurricane but ongoing weather conditions as well," he said. "Flooding is a big problem every day, and in some low-lying areas there can be 3 feet of rapid-velocity water over the road, so our drivers have to be very cautious. It’s incredible, but we have local Puerto Rico CAP personnel assisting us who literally have no roof on their houses.”
The air operations branch director, Lt. Col. David English, also of the Georgia Wing, added, “As a 24-year U.S. Air Force veteran, I have never worked with a more professional group. They are as dedicated, qualified and capable as anyone I have ever worked with, either in active or reserve duty.
"It is amazing. They come in and get the job done. The pilots, the aerial photographers — all are conscientious, dedicated, checking and rechecking their equipment, checking inventory, double-checking their mission instructions, carefully evaluating picture quality. We solve problems as we go, thinking outside the box,” English said.
One of the more poignant sights comes as CAP members are driven to the airport each day. People are standing outside the fence at the airport holding signs that say, “THANK YOU FOR ALL THE ASSISTANCE FROM THE U.S.” The crews say they find it deeply humbling.
For the past two weeks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and CAP — the auxiliary of the Air Force — have needed to obtain photographs of the southwest corner of Puerto Rico, a highly restricted area. Because of that restriction, it had been impossible to obtain permission to fly missions over that portion of the island.
Incident command post personnel went to work and, in an extremely complex coordination effort, secured permission for CAP’s Puerto Rico Wing and the Federal Aviation Administration to execute much-needed aerial photography flights in the area.
Daily Sorties and Then to Bed, Exhausted
FEMA and other U.S. government agencies frequently use the services of Civil Air Patrol to document disaster conditions through aerial photography. These CAP missions are approved by and coordinated through the Air Force. Each day in Puerto Rico, members are flying five to eight times daily over the island and taking hundreds of aerial photographs, each marked with an exact GPS location. The photographs are used to accurately assess damage, danger and conditions on the ground.
One such flight, performed this week by 2nd Lt. Steven Chamberland of the Georgia Wing, is an example of aircrew activities.
“Our flight today was a photography mission just to the west of the airport. At this particular airport, a lot of Black Hawk helicopters and tilt-wing Ospreys were flying in and out on their missions," Chamberland said."Needless to say, we were very active in the cockpit, monitoring three radios and watching the skies. Mission Pilot 2nd Lt. Steven Stigler (another Georgia Wing member) was listening to San Juan approach control, and I was listening to the other tower and to CAP mission radio.”
CAP flights are assigned specific areas to photograph, with aircraft using a grid pattern to ensure all parts of the area are included. “We made sure we were flying our grid and watching for all of the aircraft in the area. Helicopters were below us, heavy aircraft was above us and there were some landing aircraft right at our altitude. It was a very busy cockpit,” Chamberland said.
In the rear seat, the aircrew’s aerial photographer, 1st Lt. Richard Marko, a member of CAP’s Maryland Wing, was taking photos. “His eyes were totally focused on the camera and out the side window most of the flight,” said Chamberland. “Of course, he could hear all of the radio chatter, but he could not turn away from his job.
"His focus was impressive: bouncing around in a small aircraft, listening to all the air traffic instructions and not turning away for a second is tough. But he was absolutely focused.”
After all CAP aircraft returned to base, incident command held a large briefing to prepare for the next morning’s flights. All aircrews plan their flights the night before, and everyone in this aircrew knew they were getting up early.
“Tomorrow, I’m flying ‘high bird,’ which is an airborne communication relay for all of our other aircraft across the island,” Chamberland said. “This sortie will basically fly a race track holding pattern at about 8,000 feet over the center of the island, land to refuel after all other aircraft land, then take off and be on station ready for when the other aircraft get back in the air for their second sortie.”
The plan also assigned several more sorties with additional pilots: two missions south; one east and one west mission; and two west grids to be flown by just-arrived pilots from the Virginia Wing. To maximize efficiency, the goal is to fly one long grid, land, refuel and then launch again for the second grid, returning to mission base before afternoon storms come through.
Asked about the condition of the island, Chamberland said, “It’s 9 p.m. now ... past my bedtime for what I am assigned to do tomorrow. We are all exhausted and ready to hit the bed. But I was able to get a cell signal and was able to call home for once.”
Returning to the question, he said, “Actually, some of the devastation is so bad here that it’s hard to see and talk about. Whole neighborhoods are scattered. The magnitude of this disaster is unbelievable. The scale of the relief effort is equally unbelievable. So many people are here and helping get life back on track for our Puerto Rico family.”