By Air Force Capt. Matt Murphy and Air Force Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton, Puerto Rico Air National Guard
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Air National Guard units from Puerto Rico, Illinois and Wisconsin teamed up to restore Federal Aviation Administration-managed air traffic control operations on Puerto Rico as part of response efforts in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation on the island.
Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 and destroyed a key generator used by the FAA to power its control center that directs aircraft movement in and around the island. The FAA’s San Juan Center is responsible for directing the movement not only civilian and military aircraft for takeoff and landing at the island’s airports, but also any aircraft flying in the vicinity.
“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,” said Edward Tirado, an operations manager with the FAA in Puerto Rico.
Air Traffic Control Curtailed
The loss of power and communications lines required that all aircraft traffic 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, officials said.
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, Tirado said. The focus of the assistance, he said, 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.
Air Force Lt. Col. Humberto Pabon, the vice wing commander of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard’s 156th Airlift Wing, said he 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,” Pabon said. “We worked with various Guard resources to provide power and immediate data link access.”
Restoring Air Traffic Control System
With basic communications re-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 per hour, and finally into the upper 30s and low 40s, which is normal operations.
After the storm, the wing’s 156th Communications Flight had immediately established a Joint Incident Site Communications Capability team, giving Air Guard commanders local communications to get their own air operations back online.
Another Air National Guard JISCC unit, the 126th Communications Flight from Illinois, is powering the 156th’s command post and airfield management office and restoring ramp operations at Muniz Air National Guard Base near here.
The Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Communications Flight set up a separate JISCC at the FAA’s San Juan communications center. This allowed San Juan Center to resume having direct communications with inbound and outbound aircraft.
The commanders and team members from all three JISCCs pooled resources and knowledge to work with the FAA and get the air traffic control system back up and running.
“We had to come up with multiple solutions to every challenge,” said Air Force Capt. Jeff Rutkowski, commander of the Wisconsin Air National Guard‘s 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,” Rutkowski added.
“This support between the guard and the FAA is unprecedented,” said Air Force 2nd Lt. Jose Arroyo-Cruz, a 156th cyberspace operations officer and one of hundreds of Puerto Rico Air National Guard members who’ve been on the job since before the storm hit.
“We had a ‘hole in the sky’ over Puerto Rico,” Arroyo-Cruz said. “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.”