The Western Air Defense Sector on Joint Base Lewis-McChord diligently worked with dozens of agencies and first responders in direct support of search and rescue operations in the Houston area following the wake of destruction left by Hurricane Harvey since Aug 30.
“The WADS is normally tasked with the air defense of North America for (North American Aerospace Defense Command),” said Col. Gregor Leist, WADS commander. “But by utilizing air battle management command and control skills, an extensive network of radio and telephone communication, radar and data link equipment and ingenuity and innovation, the Washington Air National Guardsmen of team BIGFOOT put their expertise to use to save over 800 people from rising flood waters.”
On Aug. 30, military authorities scrambled an Airborne Warning And Control System surveillance aircraft from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., to the Houston area.
“The mission was for situational awareness,” said Col. William Krueger, 225th Air Defense Group commander. “But within a short amount of time, the WADS began providing critical communications relay between the Texas Emergency Operations Center, rescue coordination centers, joint terminal air controllers and the U.S. Coast Guard helicopters who executed the (search and rescue) mission. The communications relay was needed due to cell tower and electrical outages throughout the Houston area.”
According to Lt. Col. Brian Bergren, 225th Air Defense Squadron director of operations, the WADS vast communication network was able to provide real-time rescue status updates for 11 hospitals, helicopter landing zones and aircraft refueling areas over an area of about 25,000 square miles.
“The WADS enhanced the decision making abilities for those on the ground trying to rescue stranded people, and brought a sense of order to the chaotic airspace over the flood zone area,” Bergren said. “The dedication of these Washington Air Guardsman directly resulted in the safe execution of 148 flying sorties, 81 (search and rescue) events and the notable rescue of over 800 individuals.”
One poignant event that the WADS was involved with was the urgent call for help from one of the emergency coordination centers stating water had started flooding Pine Forest Elementary School, in Vidor, Texas, due to a dam break.
“There were over a hundred evacuees located there who needed immediate rescue,” said Capt. Nicholas Rhodes, air battle manager. “When helicopters arrived on scene to pick up the survivors, we smoothly and calmly directed the airborne assets to Houston area hospitals after ensuring landing zones were both available and safe.”
The Western Air Defense Sector leadership had nothing but accolades for Maj. John Dalrymple, Maj. Matthew Horrocks, Rhodes, Capt. Gregory Firestone and Staff Sgt. Kayla Sharpe, all of whom remained calm under pressure during this rescue operation.
“This team was instrumental in expeditiously creating cohesive air extraction plans during the entire search and recovery effort,” Krueger said.
The WADS air battle managers and command and control battle management operators from the Washington Air National Guard have completed the critical search and rescue support to Texas and Louisiana. This operation was the largest direct support effort to the Defense Support of Civil Authorities enterprise the WADS has participated since Sept. 11, 2001.