By Capt. Elizabeth Kreft , 113th Wing
/ Published September 09, 2011
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Maryland -- Natural disasters come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes even a high-ranking visitor can make a unit scramble more than seismic activity. But in the span of eight days, the 113th Wing expertly navigated a record-breaking earthquake, a Category-II hurricane evacuation and a visit from the NORAD/NORTHCOM commander.
"I'm really proud of each member of the wing for the outstanding effort they've shown during these pressure-filled events," said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Johnson, 113th Wing commander.
"From the very beginning, the dedication and professionalism I witnessed amazed me, but it didn't surprise me."
The ground underneath the wing headquarters building shook violently just before 2 p.m. Aug. 23 thanks to a 5.8-magnitude earthquake centered in Mineral, Va.
More than a dozen wing leaders had gathered for meetings; some made a quick dash under door archways to find immediate shelter and others made a speedy exit outdoors as soon as they felt the tremors.
"I was confused; I really thought the only thing that could cause that kind of reverberation was an F-16," said Lt. Col. Paula Penson, 113th Medical Group commander. After surviving wildfires in California, tornadoes in Texas and now earthquakes in the National Capitol Region, Colonel Penson said she chuckled when she saw the confused faces around the room.
"I've seen plenty of natural disasters follow me around the country, but this was totally unexpected, especially in this region," she said.
Master Sgt. Jeff McGee, Information Security specialist, was sitting on his desk in the operations vault when he felt something strange.
"I thought it was me and I was going to pass out or something," said Sergeant McGee. "But I looked up and saw the lights moving so I yelled for everyone to
evacuate the vault."
Sergeant McGee also acts as a building manager, so he ran back inside after the initial movement ceased, to do a safety check and grab radios.
"We didn't know what it was at first, it didn't register...I mean we aren't exactly in an earthquake zone."
In the command post Tech. Sgt. Branden Streett, an Emergency Actions controller, lived up to his duty title when the quake shook the walls of their vault.
"There were actually four or five [of] us in there at the time, and when we initially felt it we thought it could be an issue with the aircraft," he said.
At that point Sergeant Streett heard Senior Master Sgt. Charles Desot make a broadcast alert to evacuate the building, and he jumped into action making a critical call to the Eastern Air Defense Sector.
"We have practiced this type of scenario before, but I couldn't believe we were actually doing it," Sergeant Street said. "We had to let EADS know they couldn't reach us on the scramble line - they actually knew what we were talking about because they felt it too; then we grabbed all our gear, locked the vault and ran out."
Sergeant Street said he felt confident when they made it outside that they had executed the evacuation safely and performed it properly.
"We contacted the defense sector again and let them know they were still reachable outside, then within minutes they swept the building for safety. Lt. Col. Veal got the approval from General Johnson and we were able to get back to test all of our systems."
Within 15 minutes, the alert vault was back up and running, thanks to quick reactions and quality preemergency preparations.
For the first time in its history, the 113 WG evacuated all flyable aircraft as a preventative effort while Hurricane Irene barreled toward the Eastern Seaboard boasting 100+ mph winds.
General Johnson made the call to evacuate the flyable F-16s, C-38 and C-40 aircraft while closely watching the National Weather Service predictions. With Joint Base Andrews sitting squarely in the then-Category III hurricane track, General Johnson directed the 121st Fighter Squadron and the 201st Airlift Squadron to get their aircraft to a safer airfield.
"We are supposed to evacuate up to a Category I hurricane, and that is what we made sure we were ready to do," said General Johnson.
Through several days of coordinated maintenance and careful scheduling with other units, eighteen F-16s, two C-38s and three C-40s - the entire wing fleet with the exception of one jet (in phased maintenance) - were all flown off station safely away from Irene.
"Enlisted leadership flawlessly executed the mission, the requirements and the responsibilities for hurricane evacuation procedures," said Lt. Col. Reggie Bullock, 113th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander.
"I knew they could do it, and they did it. When it was done, Chief Russell and I had an 'ahhhh' moment," he said with a smile. "Mission accomplished."
As maintainers made hasty preparations on both sides of the flightline, Civil Engineering members scoured the wing grounds for potential safety hazards as hurricane-force winds approached Andrews.
"The biggest challenges were that we were preparing for the hurricane, but we still had the rest of our CE responsibilities and customers to take care of as well," said Capt. Duane Peterson, 113th Wing (acting) Base Civil Engineer.
"We were running around the base strapping stuff down, checking to make sure we picked up any loose stuff that we saw."
Captain Peterson stressed that it was truly a wingwide effort, because by the time his crew made their final sweep, the majority of loose items were already secured by independent wing shops.
"We noticed people really cleaned up around their areas; that made our jobs a lot easier and I'm really glad they made that effort," he said.
From flying the first lady at the 201 AS, to providing alert cover for the National Capitol Region; the 113th Wing works closely with many high-visibility organizations and executes several no-fail missions.
As a reminder of that special responsibility - and the inevitable associated scrutiny - the North American Aerospace Defense Command and United States Northern Command commander, General Charles H. Jacoby Jr., visited the 113 WG for the first time.
General Jacoby flew in specifically to visit the Aerospace Control Alert mission (formerly Air Sovereignty Alert) and evaluate the response capabilities.
"We want to make sure our leadership understands we take this mission very seriously," said Colonel Degnon, 113 WG vice commander. "We operate in the busiest AOR; our response time has to be the fastest and we are innovators."
Colonel Kirk Pierce, 113th Operations Group commander, briefed the general on several noteworthy ACA accomplishments, such as being the first alert detachment to initiate a staggered recovery when returning from a mission, ensuring un-interrupted response capabilities.
The general and his staff offered many comments of praise, taking several moments to shake hands and thank the alert maintenance crew on their efforts during the practice scramble they conducted specifically for his visit.
"There's a reason why you are the first ACA mission I'm visiting," General Jacoby said. "I consider you guys the gold standard for this mission."
After eight days of non-stop responses for earthquakes, hurricanes and high-visibility guests the entire wing deserves a gold star, according to General Johnson.
"You should all be proud of yourselves, every one of you, because this was a total DCANG effort that began long ago when we embarked on a journey to greatness," he said. "I am very fortunate and proud to command such a great group of people."