OCTOBER 2, 2017, Puerto Rico – A week and a half post hurricane Maria, it is hard to tell the Federal Aviation Administration was at “ground zero” and in the dark with no power or communications capabilities. Now, the air traffic flow at San Juan Luis Munoz Marin International Airport is back to normal thanks to the relationship between the Air National Guard stepped in to help the FAA and restore air operations for the island.
The Sept. 20 storm left Puerto Rico destroyed a key generator used by the FAA to power their control center that directs aircraft movement in and around the island. The FAA’s San Juan Center is responsible for directing the movement of civilian and military aircraft for takeoff and landing, but also any aircraft flying in the vicinity.
Edward Tirado, an operations manager with the Puerto Rico FAA, said, “We take it for granted.” As he points to a telephone. “It seems so simple, but it’s a lifeline for our operations. After the storm we had nothing. Thanks to our relationship with the Puerto Rico Air National Guard, they were able to provide us with the assistance we needed to get back up and running and now the Air National Guard is supporting us with redundancy as a backup now that power is restored to our building.”
The loss of power and communications lines created a situation where all aircraft traffic had to be controlled by visual and physical spacing. Only one aircraft could arrive or leave the island every 10 minutes, or six per hour, to ensure that the aircraft were safely separated. Under normal operating conditions, an airport the size of San Juan International can handle about 45 flights per hour. The limited aircraft movement choked the supply chain of critical material and personnel.
The Puerto Rico Air National Guard, while in a recovery state itself, saw the big picture and knew they needed to immediately support the FAA. The focus of the PRANG’s assistance was to help re-establish local and ground-to-air communications and to re-establish radar coverage of the air space above the island and surrounding area.
Lt. Col. Humberto Pabon, the vice wing commander of the PRANG’s 156th Airlift Wing understood the gravity of the situation and the necessity to restore air operations capabilities so he set teams in motion.
“Our communications flight immediately engaged with the FAA at the airport, to begin that process. We worked with various Guard resources to provide power and immediate data link access,” Pabon said.
With basic communications established, the number of flights taking place per hour, began to climb, from six per hour, to 18 per hour two days after the storm, to more than 30 and finally into the upper 30s and low 40s which is normal operations .
After the storm, the PRANG’s 156th Communications Flight, had immediately established a JISCC – Joint Incident Site Communications Capability team – giving Air Guard commanders local communications and get their own air operation back online.
Another Air National Guard JISCC unit, the 126th from Illinois, is powering the 156th’s command post and airfield management office, restoring ramp operations at Muniz. The commanders and team members from all three JISCCs pulled resources and knowledge to work with the FAA and get them back up and running.
In the spirit of community partnership, the PRANG provided its additional resource of from Wisconsin, the 115th Communications Flight, to set up a separate JISCC at the FAA communications center at San Juan. This allowed San Juan Center to begin having direct communications with inbound and outbound aircraft again.
“We had to come up with multiple solutions to every challenge, said Capt.Jeff Rutkowski, commander of the Wisconsin JISCC. “We’d try something and the first solution wouldn’t work. We’d get something started and realize that a better idea came along and we’d switch to that. We were dealing with a scenario where so many things were damaged, we really had to get creative.”
“This support between the Guard and the FAA is unprecedented,” said 2nd Lt. Jose Arroyo-Cruz, a 156th cyberspace operations officer and one of hundreds of PRANG Citizen-Airmen who have been on the job since before the storm hit. “We had a hole in the sky over Puerto Rico. It was a giant hole in the highway in the sky. We had to fix that hole before we could bring in aid to the people of Puerto Rico.”
(U.S. Air National Guard Story by Capt. Matt Murphy and Tech Sgt. Dan Heaton)