JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii --
When it was looking like Hurricane Maria – a potent Category 5 hurricane packing 150 mph winds – would hit Puerto Rico in September, airmen from the Hawaii Air National Guard knew there was a good chance they would be asked to assist with relief efforts.
Having just returned from relief missions in the Texas area - where Hurricane Harvey had struck just weeks before - the airmen had the experience of disaster relief operations fresh in their minds. So when Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, devastating the Caribbean island and U.S. territory, they knew the request for assistance would not be far behind.
That request came on September 29 from the National Guard Bureau and the mission planning commenced shortly thereafter.
A team of 18 Total Force airmen comprised of aircrews and a C-17 Globemaster assigned to the 204th Airlift Squadron along with maintenance and support personnel from the HIANG’s 154th Maintenance Group and the active duty 15th Maintenance Group formed the response package.
The group departed Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam on October 2.
“Our mission was air transport of life-sustaining equipment such as a Disaster Relief Bed down Set and a Load Handling System Compatible Water Tanks,” said Maj. Britton Komine, a pilot with the 204th Airlift Squadron. “We also moved civil-engineers and Virginia Army National Guard soldiers into and out of Puerto Rico.”
The mission required flying to Puerto Rico from multiple locations on the continental U.S.
“Everyone performed great under less than ideal conditions,” said Komine. “Crew duty days were 22 hours plus with multiple flying legs.”
According to Komine collaboration and communication was a hallmark of the mission. “The jet never stopped flying…one crew would fly from 1000 to 1000, and the next crew would meet at the jet to continue flying it. The aircraft maintenance team did a superb job of maintaining the health of the aircraft.”
With a firsthand look of the devastation to the island community, the mission was of great significance for the airmen.
“I kept thinking just how easy our community could be in this position.” Komine said.
For one team member in particular the relief efforts were of personal importance; Senior Airman Gustavo Rivera-Pomales a Flying Crew Chief assigned to the 15th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron was born and raised in Puerto Rico and still had family in the community.
“When we found out Senior Airman Rivera-Pomales was from Puerto Rico and had family there we said ‘we got to get them out here,’” said Komine.
Arrangements were made to have Rivera-Pomales’s father and grandparents meet the team plane-side.
“Being able to help Gustavo re-unite with his family was a special experience for us.” Komine said.
The group returned home to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on October 14.
“We train and perform many missions thru out our career, but there are a few that sit at the top in terms of job satisfaction,” Komine said. “This was one of them.”