From Hurricane Irma evacuation to Maria recovery – the 6th OSS

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Adam R. Shanks
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

Prior to Hurricane Irma, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, made preparations in anticipation of a probable direct hit. Aircraft and other assets were moved to alternate locations, and Col. April Vogel, the commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing, issued an evacuation order.

The credit for all of the work couldn’t go to just one Airman however; a collaborative effort by all of Team MacDill ensured the base could endure the storm and come out unscathed. One squadron in particular, the 6th Operations Squadron, foresaw a busy road ahead and stepped up to the challenge with their marching order and vision: “Steadfast Partner… Exceptional Mission Support.”

Weather Flight

The weather flight within the 6th OSS is responsible for forecasting the weather around MacDill. During Irma, they worked 24/7 to track the storm and provided 6th AMW leadership with continuous updates on the many possible storm tracks. 

“The storm was no surprise, we had been tracking it since it was a tropical depression out in the Atlantic,” said Senior Master Sgt. Michael Hermann, the flight chief of weather assigned to the 6th OSS. “Once the storm was around 96 hours away from base, that’s when it became a huge concern.” 

At that time, the storm began traveling westward with MacDill in its cross-hairs. Ultimately, the weather team’s multiple weather bulletins, as well as briefings with leadership and mission partners, led to the decision of when the base should evacuate personnel. Fortunately, MacDill suffered no major damage.

Within hours post-storm, and after the base was deemed safe to enter, weather Airmen inspected their work center and equipment. However, their job still remained unfinished. They began reactivating their software to re-establish airfield operations to support the recovery efforts for Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands with a one-two punch.

Currently, the team is providing visual radar briefings to the pilots and aircrew of the many aircraft delivering supplies to the Caribbean.

Airfield Management

Airfield Management held the responsibility of ensuring MacDill’s airfield could endure the storm-force winds, storm surge, and rain from Irma. After the hurricane passed, getting the airfield operational to support the aircraft flying in to stage supplies for Hurricane Irma and Maria recovery missions became their top priority.

"My team started to open the airfield while still feeling the effects of Irma, and had it fully functional and ready to catch aircraft less than 12 hours after the storm passed, said Lt. Col. Justin Dahman, the commander of the 6th OSS. Within 30 minutes of opening, the first C-17 [Globemaster III] landed to prepare supplies for the recovery efforts in the Caribbean."

Air Traffic Control Landing Systems (ATCALS)

The ATCALS team employs more than 80 pieces of hardware to ensure the safety of aircraft taking off and landing on the airfield. Despite having only three Airmen during the pre-Irma preparations, they were able to safeguard approximately $4.7 million in assets. Their systems include everything to make an airfield functional from the radios to the navigational aids used by the pilots and Air Traffic Control.

“The forecast called for a storm surge up to nine feet, so we made sure to disconnect all the systems on the airfield and the air traffic control tower,” said Tech. Sgt. Mandy Thorpe, the NCO in charge of airfield systems assigned to the 6th OSS. “We have an aircraft maintenance mentality; we make sure the job gets done and that it gets done right.”

Thorpe explained that during Irma, a transformer near the ATCALS building short-circuited and cut power to their systems. Had the team not disconnected all the electronic assets, the damage from the power surge would have delayed airfield recovery efforts, preventing the swift 12-hour turnover time for the airfield.

Air Traffic Control

The Air Traffic Control Airmen work very closely with Tampa International and were responsible for coordinating the evacuation of all KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft from MacDill as a precaution. On September 8, 2017 at approximately 7 p.m., the last of 11 KC-135s departed MacDill and the team began storm preparation, much like ATCALS. Master Sgt. Raymond Armijo, the chief controller assigned to the 6th OSS, oversaw all instrument, radar, and weather systems were meticulously disconnected and stored to ensure proper working condition after the storm’s passage.  

When the storm passed, they quickly assembled their team and swiftly got systems back online to start accepting the first wave of relief aircraft. Mr. Frank Seda and Senior Airman Kevin Beasley, both air traffic control specialists with the 6th OSS, put their own personal preparation and cleanup on hold to facilitate the closing and opening of MacDill’s Air Traffic Control facility. 

“The teamwork shown by my Air Traffic and Airfield Systems professionals was humbling,” said Dahman. “They understood the importance of the airfield operations to the recovery effort and worked well into the night, pre- and post-storm, to ensure Team MacDill could accept aircraft, safely.”  

The tower, which normally saw one to two aircraft during the night, are currently seeing around 10.

Current Operations

Airmen in current operations assist in the building and execution of daily flying schedules globally. Their role before Irma was to plan the KC-135 evacuation, as well as schedule their return once the airfield was operational. One Airman, Capt. Christopher Ladehoff, the assistant chief of wing scheduling, led a team of three to accomplish their mission; safeguard the aircraft, and prepare all airfield systems for the storm.

His team’s efforts enabled the survival launch and relocation of 11 aircraft and 70 Airmen in less than 48 hours before the forecasted category four storm’s passage over MacDill, saving approximately $700 million in assets. 

The aircraft were evacuated to McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, where Maj. Robert Old Crow, the assistant director of operations assigned to the 6th OSS, directly coordinated the 618th Air and Space Operations Center to facilitate nearly 20 Tanker Airlift Control Center tasks in support of airborne command, control, and Operation NOBLE EAGLE sorties.

His team’s efforts offloaded more than 300,000 pounds of fuel to 15 aircraft. This team set the stage for the follow-on of humanitarian relief and aeromedical evacuation operations to assist millions of distressed people throughout the state of Florida, Puerto Rico, and the greater Caribbean region. 

The 6th Operations Support Squadron

Overall, operations have returned to normal, however, MacDill is constantly receiving surges of aircraft to help transport supplies to the Caribbean.

“It was a crazy couple of days, but I am so impressed with how my team handled everything,” said Dahman. “Airmen who didn’t even work for certain flights were volunteering to stay and help in any place they could.”