Small Reserve unit restores air traffic in Puerto Rico

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- As Hurricane Maria battered the U.S. Virgin Island St. Croix, a small Reserve unit from Oklahoma raced to Puerto Rico on Sept. 19, to evacuate air traffic controllers before the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 85 years, made landfall.

Lt. Col. Greg Baur, a Reserve Citizen Airman and combat flight inspection pilot assigned to the 1st Aviation Standards Flight at Will Rogers World Airport, Oklahoma City, was the first in his unit to respond.

The 1st ASF works in tandem with the Federal Aviation Administration, flying the FAA’s aircraft and performing flight inspections of navigational aids, radar and flight instruments at military and civilian installations in the United States and overseas.

Baur performed six round-trip flights, shuttling air traffic controllers out of Puerto Rico ahead of the storm.

“I flew the Bombardier Challenger 601 to evacuate eight air traffic controllers out of Puerto Rico before landfall of Hurricane Maria, then transported them to Miami to set up a temporary air traffic control relay to remotely control air traffic from the U.S.,” said Baur.

Baur also transported controllers to nearby St. Thomas, and described the scene at the Cyril E. King Airport there.

“There were small general aviation airplanes in ditches, upside down, demolished on the airfield,” Baur said. “It looked a little bit like a war zone. We were shuttling folks back and forth, trying to get operations up and running.”

Commander of the 1st ASF, Lt. Col. James Hawley, along with another pilot and one maintenance technician, departed Oklahoma City three days later to support 1st ASF and FAA operations in Puerto Rico.

“We transported FAA employees, radar technicians, air traffic controllers, parts for radars, parts for air traffic control towers, generators and anything they needed to get the air space up and running again,” Hawley said.

They flew the Challenger from Oklahoma City to Wyoming to pick up a radar component before flying to San Juan, Puerto Rico, transporting personnel and delivering parts to the areas devastated by Hurricane Maria.

“It’s a little plane,” Hawley said. “It can hold about six passengers. We flew smaller parts down and big stuff was taken by the big boys: C-130s, C-5s and C-17s.”

According to Hawley, they flew air traffic controllers from San Juan International Airport, Puerto Rico, to St. Thomas every morning to open up the tower for other aircraft, heading back to San Juan in the evenings because of the dire living conditions in St. Thomas. The aircrew then returned to Ft. Lauderdale to rest each night, due to the lack of lodging available from the large amount of emergency response teams in the area.

They also shuttled personnel from San Juan to St. Croix.

“We transported FAA assessment technicians to the Virgin Islands so the technicians could inspect the airfields in order to begin the process of rebuilding and safely running operations again,” Hawley said.

Although the primary mission of the 1st ASF is to perform flight inspections of navigational aids, they did not perform that mission in Puerto Rico because of the condition of the facilities.

“There’s no way we can do certifications right now, because we are still flying-in relief and supplies,” Hawley said. “When we fly flight inspections, it takes up a lot of air space and time. Right now, they need to get relief.”

Since the departure of the Reserve Citizen Airmen in the 1st ASF, the FAA will continue transportation operations in Puerto Rico, while the 1st ASF travels to Antarctica, Europe and the Pacific in support of other taskings, according to Hawley.

In Antarctica, Hawley and one other pilot will flight inspect navigational aids, so that other aircraft can fly under what is known as instrument flight rules conditions, or IFR, rather than visual flight rules, or VFR.

“When the weather is cloudy or unfavorable, navigational aids send out a signal to the airplanes, helping pilots locate the airport so they can land safely with limited or no visibility,” Hawley said.

The 507th Air Refueling Wing here administratively supports the 1st ASF, located at Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City. The 1st ASF falls under the 413th Flight Test Group, Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. The flight operates from Will Rogers International World Airport, Oklahoma City, and augments the Air Force Flight Standards Agency Detachment 1, the on-site active duty unit. The 1st ASF consists of approximately 23 people who fly and help maintain the FAA’s Bombardier Challenger 601, 604 and 605.