TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --
When Hurricane Dorian appeared on radar to hit Georgia and the Carolinas this week, nearly a quarter of a million residents evacuated the coast and they’re not the only ones who took security measures ahead of the category two storm’s arrival.
The 4th Fighter Wing from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina evacuated their fleet of F-15E Strike Eagles along with KC-135 Stratotankers of the co-located 916th Air Refueling Wing. E-8C Joint Stand-Off Aerial Reconnaissance System aircraft from the 116th Air Control Wing, Georgia Air National Guard from Warner-Robins AFB, Georgia also took refuge from the impending storm.
Tinker Air Field Manager Marc Bradley says the entire evacuation process is a team effort involving extensive coordination of air traffic control, transportation, security and maintenance support.
“The positive across the board is we’re protecting (Department of Defense) assets,” Bradley said.
According to Bradley, talks began on Thursday of last week regarding whether Tinker could potentially support the F-15s, E-8s and Tankers.
“We have a HURREVAC plan and part of that plan is a letter of agreement with certain bases on the East Coast and the Gulf,” Bradley said. “That agreement says what support we can provide and what support they’ll bring with them to support these aircraft. If we can accommodate them all, we figure out a parking plan of how to do that.”
While Tinker was initially a back-up refuge location for the storm evacuations, the primary refuge location of Wright-Patterson AFB wasn’t an option due to a lack of air field space to house the units’ entire fleet.
“We’re fortunate this time, since the storm was moving slowly we had enough warning so that they were able to send an advanced team out here yesterday,” Bradley said. “They were able to bring in maintainers and some aircrew members to help with the parking and the process of bringing all the aircraft in.”
The commander of the 72nd Operations Support Squadron, Lt. Col. Casey Hayes, said that this particular evacuation situation was unique.
“What’s unique is that we executed an evacuation plan. This wasn’t a surprise, but we have to dust this plan off in times like this and I was really pleased to see how that all came together,” Hayes said. “The challenge that we have is maybe (only) 80% of our ramp space is actually available due to construction and that’s another challenge our Air Field Management team has.”
Despite the challenges, Bradley and Hayes said the evacuation process also provides a training opportunity for these scenarios as well as air traffic control in bringing in different fighter and heavy aircraft.
“We do our best to minimize the impact on operations here. We have very minimal impact to aircraft operations,” Bradley said. “On the airfield we have to accommodate aircraft so there are alternative taxi routes we’ll have to use while these aircraft are here, but it’s nothing that stops the mission from continuing.”
The 72nd Operations Support Squadron Flight Chief Ashleigh Brett who assumed her position at Tinker last week after moving from United States Air Forces Europe jumped right into assisting in the planning and execution of the evacuation process.
“That’s the nature of the beast. It’s challenging for sure, but it’s rewarding because you see immediate results,” Brett said. “It’s right there on the ramp. You see those planes sitting there, they’re safe and sound and that’s really fulfilling.”
The tentative plan for the aircraft to return to their home bases is within a week, however depending on the speed of the storm and the amount of damage sustained by the airfields, their departure could be delayed.
“It is resource protection for Big Blue,” Hayes said. “My heart goes out to those who have to come here knowing that they’re leaving their families behind who also have to evacuate.”