In the vast majority of cases, most aviation resources that respond to large disasters belong to the military. The US Air Force (USAF) has a unit, the 621st Contingency Response Wing, that responds to disaster scenes all over the world. “The 621st’s major job is to open airfields for a wide variety of missions from combat operations to disaster relief,” explained Colonel William Wade. “This includes repairing damaged airports or enlarging current runways to enable the use of larger aircraft. That airfield would then be used to bring in the infrastructure to create a logistics hub to support the designated mission.”
He continued: “As an example, after Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in September of 2019, our first step was to insert a small team to assess the airfield and determine what was needed to create the appropriate mission facilities. In this case, our mission was to set up a logistics hub to receive relief material and for evacuating the sick and injured. We then reported our assessment to the Bahamian government. On international disaster relief missions, we are working for the host nation. We do not come in and take over. We advise and assist the host government.”
The 621st has a wide variety of skill sets. They have civil engineers who can assess structures and runways to see what kind of repairs are needed. The unit does not have any organic engineering construction capabilities. They would detail what needs to be done and what kind of equipment would be needed to make those repairs. As the airfield is being prepared, they also co-ordinate with local authorities to make sure that a safe, efficient distribution system is created to get the supplies that are flown in to those in need as quick as possible.
A vital part of the disaster assessment team is a qualified air traffic controller. They determine what facilities are needed and can actually begin to communicate and direct incoming aircraft. They would set up traffic patterns and create separation distances and altitudes to avoid airspace confliction. While they do not deploy any radar facilities, they can bring in a portable instrument approach system to assist with night and poor weather operations.
The team includes a security section that assesses the safety of the site and protects the personnel operating the airfield and prevents looting of the supplies that are being brought in. This is an important aspect of any disaster response to areas of the world that may be politically unstable, or possibly unfriendly to the US. Even in nations with no animosity towards the US, after several days with no food or water, tempers can flare and crowds can become threatening.
“One of the key jobs on international relief missions is to reach out to the local and regional government officials to start building relationships to determine what they need and how we can support them,” commented Col Wade. “We then look at their infrastructure to find gaps we can fill.”
“We did airfield assessments at four airports in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian and each was very different. At Marsh Harbor, we had 400 small civil aircraft arriving per day during the daylight hours, completely uncontrolled and unsupervised. We brought in a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mobile control tower and air traffic controllers from the US to organize the airspace around Marsh Harbor. We worked closely with the FAA and the Bahamian government to create procedures and Notice to Airman alerts to make the airspace as safe as possible.”
Even when most or all of the rotor and fixed-wing aircraft are military, airspace deconfliction is a challenge. Local air traffic control facilities may be damaged or destroyed. In addition, the amount and types of aircraft used during the event may be completely unfamiliar to the civilian controllers. During rescue operations, there may be dozens of helicopters operating in a relatively small area in poor weather conditions.
Boeing E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control (AWACS) aircraft are being used more and more to control aircraft in disaster operations. A multinational squadron of E-3s are based in Europe and controlled by NATO. The USAF has an E-3 unit, the 552nd Air Control Wing, based in Oklahoma. The 552nd has responded to multiple hurricanes in the past decade, and now considers it a normal part of their overall mission.
“The E-3 is a command and control platform equipped with powerful radar and communications systems,” stated Captain Dan Myers of the 552nd. “We perform a very similar role during disasters as we do during wartime, which is to provide a long-range communications and radar platform. We fall under what is called Defense Support of Civil Authority. It is a system that allows state and local governments to request military assistance.”
Captain Myers emphasized that while the E-3 offers airspace deconfliction service in a disaster, it does not replace the FAA air traffic control function. The FAA is still in charge of the airspace. Where the E-3s get involved is more in low-level altitude coordination of military helicopters that are doing rescue missions.
“If we are activated, our role is to help co-ordinate aircraft movement,” stated Captain Myers. “An airspace plan is developed, which designates below a certain altitude is for the use of helicopters only. However, we cannot prohibit the flight of civilian aircraft into the disaster area. We can detect these and point them out to the rescue aircraft over the disaster scene. We can also communicate with these civilians via aviation radio frequencies to try to keep them from becoming a hazard. The FAA has the authority to establish a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) in a disaster area forbidding unauthorized aircraft from entering the area. We can help with enforcing a TFR by giving aircraft a radio notice that they are approaching a restricted area.”
USCG rises to the challenge
In the US, many hurricanes that develop in the Atlantic Ocean make landfall in the states that border the Gulf of Mexico. Most of these fall under the jurisdiction of the 8th US Coast Guard (USCG) District.
“When a severe weather event is forecast to make landfall in our district, we begin the response planning well before it arrives,” stated Captain William Lewin, Chief of Incident Response for the 8th District. “This includes the decision of when to evacuate our aviation assets from the path of the storm and where they will be sent. These decisions are based on two overriding concerns: the safety of our personnel and our aircraft as well as where will they be able to quickly begin search and rescue (SAR) operations after the event.
“Once actual response to an event begins, we work closely with other Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) aviation assets through the state and federal emergency operation centers.”
In addition to co-ordinating the response of SAR aircraft with the DoD and DHS, the USCG also co-ordinates fuel location, maintenance facilities, as well as food, water, and rest facilities for air and maintenance crews. Many of the air stations have maintenance trailers that can be towed to forward operating bases (FOB) or other air stations to support routine maintenance. There are also helicopter support kits that can be packed and flown to an FOB or another air station. For larger or unplanned maintenance items, the USCG uses its fixed-wing aircraft for rapid transport. In addition, relief air and maintenance crews, as well as supplies, can be flown in. This was how aviation assets were supported during Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas.
Captain Lewin said a huge part of responding to catastrophic incidents is having a deliberate set of policies and procedures developed from lessons learned that are backed by regular exercises. They must be flexible enough to be appropriate for any situation, but also contain the necessary framework for a well-organized response. The USCG does internal exercises as well as participates with other local, state, federal, DoD, and DHS agencies. As an example, a series of meetings and exercises are held each year before the start of hurricane season.
The FAA retains jurisdiction and responsibility for airspace control and deconfliction but may delegate some of these roles to other agencies. USCG C-144s were used for airborne command and control and mission tasking early in the Hurricane Harvey response in the Houston, Texas, area until other air traffic control assets became available. For some of the recent large events, the USCG has found that by assigning rescue aircraft to specific geographic grids and altitudes, they have been able to deconflict airspace.
Drones are becoming more important during major incidents. For a fraction of the risk and cost of operating a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft, they can be used for situational awareness, damage assessment, finding hazards such as fires and hazardous materials spills, as well as locating victims for SAR helicopters. There are National Guard units operating large drones that have been used very effectively over large wildfires, which are now looking to expand operations into other disaster response situations. Right now, depending on the type, they have limitations on range and time on station, as well as airspace deconfliction. They can also be a hazard if operated by civilians with no communication with other responders.
The risk of earthquakes is the driving force behind Japan’s creating a system of EMS helicopters. The Kobe earthquake of 1995 killed about 6,000 people, and it was later determined that 500 of those trauma deaths were preventable. In 2001, the Japanese government established a program of helicopter EMS (HEMS) units that number almost 50 helicopters today. Lessons learned from the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake of 2011 have been implemented to improve the system. There is now a centralized command and control system for the fleet. In addition, a Disaster Relief Aircraft Management System Network (D-NET) was created. This is a satellite-based communications network used to monitor the location of all the aircraft in real-time during disasters. When demand for these helicopters is exceeded; military, coast guard, and fire department helicopters can be quickly assigned to a medical mission.
When the Kumamoto Earthquake struck in 2016, D-NET was used for the first time. Seventy-five patients were transported by 13 helicopters over a five-day period with another 14 transported by other agencies’ helicopters. The system was deemed to have worked well due to the communications among all the organizations established by the D-NET system.
With climate change making natural disasters more severe in many parts of the world, it is clear that continued national and international co-operation and co-ordination will continue to be a key element of disaster response. Rotor and fixed-wing aircraft, both civil and military, will always play an integral part of the response.