Air National Guard restores FAA capabilities for Puerto Rico

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Daniel Heaton and Capt. Matt Murphy
  • 156th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
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 communication capabilities. Now, the air traffic flow at San Juan Luis Munoz Marin International Airport is back to normal thanks to the Air National Guard stepping in to help the FAA and to restore air operations for the island.

The storm on Sept. 20 hit Puerto Rico and 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, Puerto Rico FAA operations manager, said, “We take it for granted,” as he pointed 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 communication 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 ANG, 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, PRANG’s 156th Airlift Wing vice wing commander, 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 Joint Incident Site Communications Capability team giving Air Guard commanders local communications and getting their own air operation back online.

Another ANG unit, the 126th JISCC from Illinois, is powering the 156th JISCC command post and airfield management office, restoring ramp operations at the San Juan Luis Munoz Marin International Airport. 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 ANG provided an additional resource, the 115th Communications Flight from the Wisconsin ANG, set up a separate JISCC at the FAA communications center at San Juan. This allowed San Juan Center to begin direct communications with inbound and outbound aircraft again.

“We had to come up with multiple solutions to every challenge,” said Capt. Jeff Rutkowski, Wisconsin JISCC commander. “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, 156th cyberspace operations officer and one of hundreds of PRANG 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.”