ROME, N.Y.--They may have been 1,500 miles away, but the New York Air National Guardsmen at the Eastern Air Defense Sector (EADS) played an important role in the initial relief efforts after Hurricane Irma roared over the Florida Keys on Sept. 10.
Manned by the New York Air National Guard's 224th Air Defense Group, EADS conducts an around-the-clock air defense mission as part of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). EADS is responsible for the air defense of the United States east of the Mississippi.
The unit's Battle Control Center (BCC), in Rome, New York, possesses robust communications, radar, and command and control capabilities. Designed to provide military and civilian decision-makers with time and options during air defense events, these assets proved to be effective in emergency response coordination.
"The BCC utilized many of the same systems and procedures that we use to coordinate air defense operations to support relief efforts," said Col. Emil Filkorn, EADS Commander. "This enabled the BCC to provide immediate, real-time support for airfield and search and rescue operations that took place 1,500 miles from our facility in Rome."
The BCC's air defense mission requires inter-agency and inter-service coordination on a daily basis and this familiarity proved invaluable, Filkorn explained.
"The NORAD mission is truly one team, one fight and our unit's extensive operational experience with other services and components made it easy to transition to relief coordination," Filkorn added.
Two instances on Sept. 11 demonstrated EADS' vital role, he said.
At 7 a.m., just hours after Irma had smashed its way through the chain of islands off Florida's tip, an HC-130 and two HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters left Hurlburt Field on the Florida Panhandle, bound for the demolished Marathon International Airport in the Keys.
An Air Force Special Tactics Squadron, loaded on the two helicopters, landed first. The team cleared debris, enabling the HC-130 airplane to land with additional personnel and supplies. These personnel quickly readied the airfield for additional C-130 operations.
Unknown to the special tactics team, a C-17 Globemaster had departed Travis Air Force Base, California, for Marathon and was rapidly approaching.
When the 601st Air Operations Center in Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, discovered the airfield was cleared only for C-130s, it contacted EADS. The New York Air National Guardsmen, in turn, contacted the only working communications link, an E-3 AWACS airborne search and warning aircraft. The AWACS crew relayed the impending C-17 arrival to the Special Tactics Airmen on the ground in Marathon.
The Airmen immediately went to work to make the runway safe for the larger plane. The airfield was ready in just 90 minutes and word was then passed back from the E-3 in the air to EADS in New York to the 601st back in Florida to the 18th Air Force, the parent unit of the C-17.
The C-17, carrying a full Contingency Response Element of specialized personnel and equipment, landed as planned and was off-loaded in two hours.
Twenty minutes after it departed, another C-17 landed. The Marathon airfield was now officially opened for relief operations, a little more than 24 hours after the storm had passed.
EADS also served as an indispensable communications node for search and rescue efforts.
One example was a midday effort on Sept. 11 when a RQ-4 Global Hawk remotely piloted aircraft picked up a personal locator beacon in the Florida Keys.
The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center responsible for coordinating on-land federal search and rescue activities, traced the code to a cell phone number. The phone's owner informed the rescue center that there were five people in Long Key, Florida, with the locator and that he had been unable to contact them.
EADS took the Long Key address, converted it to geo-coordinates and transmitted the information to an E-3 AWACS. The AWACS crew, working with the Search and Rescue – Operations Coordination Element), pushed the information to the USS Abraham Lincoln, a Nimitz class aircraft carrier supporting recovery operations.
The aircraft carrier launched MH-60 Seahawk helicopters in response to the call. The five persons were quickly located. Fortunately, the group did not require immediate assistance and the aircraft were dispatched for additional missions.
The ingenuity of our Airmen and the flexibility of airpower enabled our contributions to post-hurricane efforts," Filkorn said "Together with our other 24/7 partner units under NORAD, we're able to provide immediate response when called upon."