Puerto Rico Air National Guard Helps to Build 'Air Bridge'

By Air Force Tech. Sgt. Daniel Heaton, 156th Airlift Wing

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Oct. 13, 2017 — For all the airlift missions that the pilots and the loadmasters of the 198th Airlift Squadron have planned over the years, there is one major difference between those and the ones they are scheduling now as the Puerto Rico Air National Guard's representatives to Hurricanes Irma and Maria relief efforts on the island.

"We worked 14 days straight on Hurricane Katrina. That was hard. This is far harder. This is us," said Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Raul Vidal, noncommissioned officer in charge of current operations for the 198th.

Several officers and senior noncommissioned officers from the 198th are working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and numerous other federal military and civilian agencies as part of the response and relief effort on Puerto Rico.

Their task is to support the "air bridge" that the military has established between the U.S. mainland and Puerto Rico and other islands in the Caribbean, including St. Thomas and St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The air bridge is the dozens of daily flights flown by the military that bring in personnel and supplies to the islands.

'Large, Complex Mission'

"This is such a large, complex mission; it is multiple sorties every day to bring food and water -- and our main priority is just that -- [airlifting] food and water to the islands. We are working to coordinate every flight to maximize the relief efforts that can be brought in," said Air Force Lt. Col. Evanisto Orengo, a C-130 pilot and the commander of the 198th Airlift Squadron.

"We are working very closely, not just with multiple units of the Air Force, but also with the Army and the Navy and Marine Corps, with the civilian agencies, to coordinate all this movement," Orengo said. "All my experience as an airlift planner, all my experience as an airlift pilot is being put to use in this mission."

While the Air Force is handling most of the heavy airlift between the mainland and Puerto Rico, the other services are providing helicopter support for other missions on the island.

Coordinating Movement of Supplies

The air cell is also coordinating the movement of supplies that arrive in Puerto Rico and then have to be transferred to another aircraft for movement to the U.S. Virgin Islands. On Puerto Rico, Vidal said, the Puerto Rico Air National Guard is also working to coordinate air movement at four different airports and air bases around the island, in addition to San Juan.

Along with the movement of personnel and materials in to the Puerto Rico, the air cell at the emergency operations center also helps to coordinate the movement of personnel -- including military dependents and other federal employees -- off the island as empty cargo aircraft return to the mainland.

"That's another piece of all this that needs to be coordinated," said Air Force Master Sgt. Adoniram Nieves, a 198th loadmaster working at the EOC air cell. "There's a lot of information that needs to flow to many places."

Orengo said even as Puerto Rico's airmen are working on the airlift missions, many of them -- and their family members -- are also working as volunteers in their off hours, supporting relief efforts to friends and family, making responding to Hurricane Maria "a very personal mission."

"Everyone on Puerto Rico has to put in their own grain of salt," he said. "We have much to do, but if everyone contributes, we can accomplish the mission."
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