BREVARD COUNTY • PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, FLORIDA – Reserve and active duty pararescuemen were undergoing dive and jump training on Sept. 11, in Key West, Florida, when they were recalled back to their home units to immediately begin the process of pre-positioning for Hurricane Florence search-and-rescue operations.
Reserve Citizen Airmen within the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, put their lives on temporary hold to respond to a national disaster.
“When we returned to Patrick that evening, we unpacked our dive gear and repacked all of our hurricane gear,” said Senior Master Sgt. Joe Traska, 308th Rescue Squadron pararescueman.
“We went home to see our families briefly and returned the following morning to begin the trip to Moody Air Force Base, Georgia.”
In all, 140 Reservists dropped what they were doing on a Wednesday afternoon to fix and fly search-and-rescue aircraft, and perform everything imaginable in-between, to get four HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and all the necessary personnel and equipment heading north to Moody Air Force Base, Georgia when the prepare-to-deploy order was given September 12.
The 920th RQW Airmen integrated forces with active duty personnel at Moody’s 23d Wing and begin posturing for an official disaster relief operation as one cohesive Air Expeditionary Group while waiting out Hurricane Florence as it crawled through the Carolinas.
Two days later, Major General Leonard Isabelle, director of search-and-rescue operations coordination element for Air Force North Command, officially established the 334th Air Expeditionary Group tasked with positioning the fully integrated forces of Airmen and assets for relief efforts to assist those most severely impacted by Hurricane Florence.
Within 18-hours, 270 Airmen working together seamlessly picked up and moved their search-and-rescue operation from middle Georgia forward to Joint Base Charleston, S.C.
However, the coastal installation was still under evacuation orders leaving the 334th AEG faced with establishing a bare base operations center while contending with lingering unfavorable weather conditions.
“The base had to literally open their gates for our arrival,” said Lt. Col. Adolph Rodriguez, 334th Mission Support Group commander.
“They (Joint Base Charleston officials) began recalling critical personnel to give us the necessary assistance for this (search-and-rescue) operation to be a success.”
With the aid of the host installation, the 334th AEG was fully operational capable; ready to conduct search-and-rescue missions when the first HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter landed Sept. 15.
Switching gears from readiness training in south Florida to real-world operations in South Carolina is a prime example of, “being constantly fluid and flexible,” said Capt. Jessica Colby, 334 AEG public affairs officer.
“Search and rescue is often like that: You never know where you’re going to go, you never know how big of a footprint you can bring, or what will be needed.”
There is one constant in situations like these, training, explained Rodriguez. “Reserve Citizen Airmen must constantly train to not only stay current, but to propel their capabilities beyond just meeting the minimum requirement.
Honing their proficiencies will ultimately provide the best possible performance in real-world operations. All of the readiness training efforts that the 920th RQW has conducted has better positioned the Wing to this current operational pace.”
“The same capabilities which make the U.S. Armed Forces so powerful in combat also lends themselves extraordinarily well to disaster relief.”
“It’s amazing what these Citizen Airmen did inside and outside their Air Force Specialty Codes (assigned jobs),” Rodriguez said. “They’re doing things they’re trained for, and accomplishing tasks beyond their job scope with zero deficiencies and zero mishaps.”
If the Federal Emergency Management Agency or Air Combat Command gives the order to provide disaster relief in the days ahead after Hurricane Florence ravaged the Carolinas, the 334th AEG is ready to help.