PUNTA SALINAS RADAR STATION, Puerto Rico -- The Puerto Rico Air National Guard’s 140th Air Defense Support Squadron is helping to provide critical radar coverage over the skies of the Caribbean basin to support airlift operations in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which slammed into the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Sept. 20.
The 140th, a Geographically Separated Unit of the 156th Airlift Wing, is supplying its radar imagery to the Federal Aviation Administration, the Air Force and other governmental agencies that are involved in the air traffic management, airlifts and other recovery efforts. The support of the 140th became necessary due to the widespread damage to other equipment on Puerto Rico, particularly the island’s power grid and communications network.
“Because of the topography of the island, no one radar site is able to have a clear picture of all of Puerto Rico and the surrounding areas,” explained Master Sgt. Jose Hernandez, a radar technician with the 140th. “Due to the loss of communications, everyone needs to work together to share the radar picture.”
Senior Master Sgt. Jose Falcon, superintendent of the 140th, said safety standards require redundancy in radar coverage of the region.
“It is critical that the FAA can have a clear picture of all air traffic at all times,” Falcon said.
We’ve had several volunteers step forward. They want to be part of this solution,” said Lt. Col. Catherine Valdez, the commander of the 140th.
The unit operates radar towers in Punta Salinas in the north central region of the island, and in Aguadilla, in the northwest of the island. Initially, the two were unable to communicate with each other.
“Every system we have was down after the storm. We have four ways to communicate data. All four were down after the storm,” said Tech. Sgt. Juan Otero. “We had to look for alternates and then alternates to the alternates.”
Valdez added that the work done by the unit’s enlisted corps has been critical to returning to mission capable status. “These senior NCOs – really all of these Airmen – are committed to the mission. They are the experts, making it happen,” she said.
Hernandez wants everyone to know his unit means business when it comes to ensuring the radars are operational are critical to supporting Puerto Rico.
“Even if we have to sleep here, we are going to make sure this radar operates and communicates to those who need the data,” Hernandez said.
The 140th is comprised of about 40 personnel in total, about half of who are full-time members of the squadron. The remainder is made up of Citizen-Airmen who typically serve one weekend a month and two weeks or more of active military service per year. Typically, the unit is assigned an air defense and counter-drug interdiction mission. In the wake of the hurricane, while it continues to perform those missions, it is sharing its imagery to ensure that the flow of relief supplies and related air missions are able to continue.