Just home from Iraq, air traffic controllers answer call from state

  • Published
  • By by Master Sgt. Christopher Schepers
  • State of Hawaii, DOD, Public Affairs Office
When the Kilauea volcano erupted on Hawaii’s Big Island, members of the 297th Air Traffic Control Squadron, Hawaii Air National Guard, were just getting home from a seven-month deployment that sent them to Al Asad Airbase, Al Anbar Province, Iraq. 

On the day before he was supposed to return to work Air National Guard Maj. Irving Bicoy, 297th Air Traffic Control Squadron commander, received a call that he was to put a team of air traffic controllers together for a deployment to Hilo, Hawaii to support Operation Ho’opalekana. In less than 24 hours, Bicoy was able to gather a team of five people to deploy to Hawaii’s Big Island to support the mission.

“Most of us have been away from our families for seven months,” said Bicoy. “It was the first day back to work for me and most of the technicians after our reconstitution time and that was the day that we were activated.”

The team deployed to Hilo to support Hawaii County Civil Defense, specifically the Hawaii County Fire Department in the management of aircraft entering and exiting the area under a temporary flight restriction.

“We are providing a temporary flight restriction service,” explained Bicoy. “We are monitoring the entry and exit of aircraft into and out of the TFR and providing deconfliction to all aircraft operating in the temporary flight restriction area.”

Staff Sgt. Skyler Ross, air traffic control specialist assigned to the 297th Air Traffic Control Squadron explained that they are also assisting the fire department in making the operation a sustainable one until their services are no longer needed. 

“The fire department had a very good reaction to the emergency, but they didn’t have the sustainability plan set up”, explained Ross. “We have a very good sustainability plan doing this on a daily basis and always consistently reacting.” 

Working in such a dynamic environment with so many moving parts safety is always a priority for everyone involved. Bicoy’s team had to ensure that there was a common practice between all involved parties when they hit the ground.

“The biggest thing is that we developed safe procedures, when we hit the ground running there were no procedures in place so we were able to get a memorandum of understanding between the Hawaii Civil Defense and the users of the TFR,” said Bicoy. “By getting everyone on the same page and developing common procedures and getting out to the community we were able to make a safer operation.”

While always keeping safety in mind the task force also realizes that there is a need to be flexible to many factors and adapt to an ever changing environment in Hawaii County.

“We redefined the TFR because when we first came here it was just a five-mile circle that focused on the Leilani Estates area, it didn’t encompass the entire area of responsibility,” explained Bicoy. “As the area of responsibility changed, we developed a new TFR that’s more of a polygon shape that encompasses areas that are critical to air commerce.”
“We want to work with the community so we gathered ideas from everyone that was operating in the TFR to develop an air space that was more user friendly for all users,” continued Bicoy. “We shortened the distance from the shoreline which benefits two fold by allowing tour helicopters to take closer pictures and if a helicopter ever got into trouble with weather they could use the shoreline to navigate.”

The National Guard’s mission during Operation Ho’opalekana is to conduct National Guard Domestic Operations and Defense Support to Civil Authorities to save lives, prevent human suffering and allow residents to live their lives the best they can.

“I joined the Hawaii Air National Guard to stay in Hawaii and to protect the land and no matter what the emergency is we are glad to do anything to help,” said Ross. “Being a local boy, everywhere we go whether we’re in uniform or not people recognize that we’re local and we’re here to help and that we’re here to do whatever we can.”