JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
As Hurricane Delta made its way into the Gulf of Mexico Oct. 7 and headed for the Louisiana coastline, Joint Base San Antonio personnel jumped into action to support the evacuation of aircraft and personnel from the U.S. Air Force Reserve’s 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.
The evacuation of aircraft to JBSA is a normal occurrence, but Joseph Meaux III, 502nd Operations Support Squadron director of operations, said this time it was different.
“This operation had a twist,” he said. “We not only have the C-130s evacuated here for protection from the storm, but we also have the four WC-130s conducting hurricane hunting operations. So, it’s pretty exciting times at JBSA-Kelly Field Annex.”
“Joint Base San Antonio is uniquely located where it's close to home but it also happens to be close to the mission this time around,” said 1st Lt. Ryan Smithies, of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron.
Smithies said evacuating the Hurricane Hunters to JBSA was essential to their mission during Hurricane Delta, allowing them to continue collecting important information from inside the storm, providing it to forecasters and government agencies to keep people safe, and giving everyone the most current information.
Keeping the Hurricane Hunters flying out of San Antonio during the hurricane was no small task.
“It takes a village,” Smithies said. “We've got over 50 people here - maintenance, aircrews, operations ... the whole contingency to keep this mission going around the clock.”
An important part of keeping the weather mission flying was the support provided by the 502nd OSS.
Lt. Col. E. Yancey Walker, the 502nd OSS commander, said he considers his squadron JBSA's gateway to the sky, especially during evacuations.
“We control the airspace, provide airfield management and instrument approach maintenance, as well as Host Aviation Resources Management and weather support,” he said. “This is the fourth time that we've had U.S. military aircraft evacuate to our location this year. We had an evacuation from the wildfires in California, and this is our third iteration for the hurricanes or tropical storms that have hit the Gulf Coast.”
Several other JBSA partners assisted with the evacuees as well, Walker said.
The 502nd Logistics Readiness Squadron, the 502nd Force Support Squadron and security forces personnel provided fuel and lodging, and protected the extra aircraft, he said.
“It really becomes a team effort just to support the contingencies as they come through here,” Walker said.
Another advantage of evacuating aircraft to San Antonio is the amount of available space.
“We've got parking for aircraft on the east side of JBSA-Kelly Field Annex, near the Port San Antonio, and on the west side of the field near the 433rd Airlift Wing,” Walker said. “One of the nice things about Kelly Field is that it is far enough inland that it's not typically threatened by the storms themselves.”
The JBSA-Kelly Field Annex also offers longer runways.
“We have one of the longest runways in the region. It's 11,550 feet, and we have a lot of concrete to support parking aircraft as well,” Walker said. “Between the west side, our east side, and the Port San Antonio ramp, we have the ability to host a lot of aircraft, so we're an attractive customer for both our military assets and for Federal Emergency Management Agency operations.
“We also have space where they can store materials such as water, food and clothing,” he said. “Then, we have the ability to launch those materials out of here on the larger aircraft, or on something much smaller that can get into a disaster area.”
There has been one unique challenge during this year’s evacuations - the precautions needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Part of avoiding transmission of the disease is staying out of confined spaces, Walker said, which has been a challenge in the airfield control tower.
“We've had to take extreme precautions in terms of monitoring our personnel for symptoms and sanitizing the workstations in between crews,” he said. “One of the other adjustments we had to make in order to prevent cross-contamination was reducing hours from 24/7 to 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. However, we're going back to 24/7 this week.
“We can't shut down the runway because of COVID,” Walker said. “It's a vital support asset both for the civilian community and for our military, so we just had to find ways to mitigate the risk and continue operations.”
As for Smithies, the weather reconnaissance squadron, and the Hurricane Hunters, they remain ready as they prepare to close out the 2020 hurricane season, which has been unprecedented.
“It's hard to say what the rest of this season will bring,” Smithies said. “It's been a very busy one for sure. Keesler Air Force Base is in the path of storms frequently, and it's important to have bases like Joint Base San Antonio to go to. It is a prime location for us to safely move our assets out of harm's way while continuing the mission that we wouldn't have been able to support had we stayed at home.
“We are incredibly thankful that Joint Base San Antonio has provided the hospitality and means for us to continue operating, and the support of the 502nd Operations Support Squadron has been critical to the success of our mission.”