Wingmanship: How MacDill came together through Hurricane Irma

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --

It was a late Tuesday night when he heard his phone ring from across the room of his house at his deployed location of Incirlik, Air Base, Turkey. The email notification revealed that Lt. Col. Peter Vanagas, the wing plans and programs chief assigned to the 6th Air Mobility Wing, needed to return home to MacDill Air Force Base, Florida as soon as possible.

Leading up to this email, Hurricane Irma had developed into a Category 5 storm and was rapidly approaching the state of Florida. Seeing as he was needed to perform his duties back home, Vanagas had to devise a plan to make it back home before Irma made landfall, and do it quickly.

Coming Home

Vanagas first considered flying commercial from Turkey to Spain, then from Spain directly to MacDill. He quickly discarded this idea after the sudden realization of one important detail.

“If I flew commercial out of Turkey, I had to get an armored car to take me to the airport,” said Vanagas. “This was because of the policies in place over there based on threat analysis.”

With a small window of only a couple of hours to map out a route back to MacDill, Vanagas sought help from his wingmen.

“Luckily, in two hours, the first sergeant and the superintendent at my deployed location helped me get a rotator plane ticket to Ramstein Air Base, Germany,” said Vanagas. “After about a four-hour flight and then 30 minutes on the ground at Ramstein, it was time for a nine-hour flight to Baltimore.”

Following his arrival into Baltimore, and running on three-and-a-half hours of sleep, Vanagas boarded a final flight bound for MacDill.

Before Irma

“As soon as I arrived here on Thursday, I went straight to my office and got a rundown of everything that was happening,” said Vanagas. “When Friday hit, I was able to release my Airmen to prepare for the hurricane and take care of their families, while I resumed responsibility and carried out our duties through the remainder of the storm.”

While Vanagas took care of his Airmen, his wife took care of his family in case of an evacuation order.

“During the weekend prior to the storm, I began gathering supplies and preparing our house and vehicles knowing my husband would not have much time to assist after he returned from deployment,” said Lt. Col. Leah Vanagas, the 6th Maintenance Squadron Commander. “As the evacuation order became imminent, and it looked like Tampa was going to take a direct hit by Irma, I decided to evacuate to our safe haven in Georgia.”

Once the safety of his wife, three-year-old daughter, and family dog, as well as his personnel, was secured, Vanagas shifted his focus to the situation at hand – the incoming hurricane.

“We have a plan in place that tells us how we will execute if a hurricane comes,” said Vanagas. “Once the order to evacuate was given by our base commander, Col. April Vogel, we followed the plans with the best information we had and shut down the base.”

These plans mandate that as the base starts to close, the wing must establish an emergency operations center at Raymond James stadium.

“We send small teams up to Raymond James to start setting up communication nodes, which is the most important key,” said Vanagas. “Once we know the communication nodes are in place, we are able to shut down our operations on base and move there.”

One way of ensuring crucial information is disseminated to every Team MacDill member is through the Crisis Action Team (CAT), a disaster response group.

“During any kind of hurricane operation or exercise, the CAT works hand-in-hand with the Emergency Operations Center,” said Vanagas, who functioned as the CAT director. “We track personnel accountability and help reach out to all the group and squadron control centers to gather information about all the personnel on the base and push information to them.”

During Irma

At this point, the evacuation order had been given and the base was being evacuated. The CAT had been assembled and operations at Raymond James were being set up.

“It’s tough when you have split operations between the base and the stadium because of limited manpower,” said Vanagas. “People were tired because of the heavy workload, but they would step up to complete the mission in remarkable ways.”

In what can be described as the true definition of wingmanship, Airmen committed to taking care of not only themselves, but also those around them throughout the duration of the storm.

“It didn’t matter what rank you were, whether an airman or a colonel, we all helped each other out to make sure our families were safe,” said Vanagas. “It was great to see the teamwork, camaraderie and friendships built by taking care of each other.”

These values of wingmanship and service before self, which are instilled in every Airman from the beginning of their careers, were displayed during the toughest of times.

“It was stressful because, initially, we thought the storm wasn’t going to be so severe and then at the last minute it changed to hitting MacDill directly, so our timelines got compressed and it gave us little time to prepare our homes and our families,” said Vanagas. “It was very tough for everyone, regardless if you were military or civilian.”

Once the storm passed and the base reopened, Team MacDill began returning home. Lt. Col. Peter Vanagas was a part of the recovery team tasked with assessing the damage and helping bring the base back to full mission capability.

“We all had different stories, struggles and concerns throughout,” said Vanagas. “It was great to see how many people worked together, and how many people were willing to help one another. We were able to execute a mission that we’ve never had to execute, and hopefully never have to execute again, but it was great to see everyone step up and do their part.”