Originally published in Guard and Reserve Magazine
All Guard and Reserve units provide services and support that the active duty military would be hard-pressed to supply on its own. But a few units are unique to both the active and reserve forces. Their missions are not duplicated by anyone else. They are vital to the safety, security, and support of civilians, military operations, and scientific projects that take them literally to the ends of the earth.
The Hurricane Hunters
When Andrew, Bob, Charlene, or Dianne come calling, the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron heads out to greet them. Others may flee the weather, but The Hurricane Hunters, as the Keesler, MS-based unit is known, flies into the eye of the storm. Their mission: to collect the most accurate weather data possible.
“We follow a storm through its whole life span, from the moment it’s a blob of clouds on a satellite until it’s no longer a threat,” says Major Val Hendry, one of the unit’s meteorologists.
The 53rd has ten planes and twenty crews. Its area of responsibility covers all US territory from the Mid-Atlantic to the International Date Line.
About half the members are traditional reservists. The unique mission attracts people from 18 different states. Driving in from Tennessee or Florida isn’t too bad, but one member currently lives in Guam. Major Hendry used to commute from Hawaii, paying her airfare out of pocket in order to stay with the unit.
Longevity is another trait of the 53rd. One crewmember first joined the unit in 1969, when it was an active duty squadron. Tenures or 13 or 15 years are common. “They stay because of the satisfaction you get because you know you are helping people,” Says Maj. Hendry.
The data collected by the flights increases the accuracy of the weather predictions by 25% over predictions made from studying satellite pictures alone. At an estimated $1-million per mile of coastline when evacuations are ordered, that’s a big financial savings. But there is more at stake. With populations along the coast growing, getting accurate, timely weather information is vital.
“You make the warning more credible. Certainly, if there’s a hurricane in the Gulf, you can warn the whole area from Brownsville to Key West, but who’s going to listen to that?” If it’s a false alarm, “some people may decide its too much trouble and they may not do it next time.”
Each plane carries a six-member crew: two pilots, a flight engineer, navigator, and two weather specialists. One of the weather officers monitors meteorological conditions. A computer on board traps data every 8 seconds, allowing the meteorologist to give a comprehensive weather observation every 30 seconds.
The other weather specialist is responsible for the ‘dropsond.’ That’s like a weather balloon, except that it drops into the eye of the storm instead of rising. The dropsond tech checks the data delivered from the device for accuracy while the on-board computer analyzes the information and spits out new weather predictions.
The dropsond operator is also the loadmaster for the flight, monitoring the health of the airplane as it’s tossed through the hurricane. The C-130 was chosen for the mission because of its reputation as a tough, reliable workhorse, but some storms test that. One plane lost two of its four engines in heavy hail a few years ago.
Major Travis White, one of the squadron’s pilots, says that’s a risk that must be taken if the mission is to be useful. “What we really try to do is go through in a straight line so that we give the best data to the hurricane center that we can.” But he admits that flying into a storm goes against every instinct a pilot has.
“As you start going into one of these hurricanes, especially one of the big ones, there’s this overwhelming sense that you’re doing the wrong thing. You look at the radar presentation and there’s just heavy rain everywhere and there are few thunderstorms in there that you’re going to skirt through and you really feel like you’re doing the wrong thing.”
Like everyone else attached to the squadron, the satisfaction of knowing that the wild ride is helping others makes it worthwhile, says Maj. White.
“Everywhere we go, people thank us for doing what we do. It’s an important thing. When people know a storm is coming, they can board up and prepare and do everything they can do to save lives and property. So it really does give you a good feeling.”
“It’s a huge challenge for the whole crew – flying this big, huge airplane into this virgin snowfield where there’s nothing around you and you’re out on your own, trying to make the mission happen.”
The 109th Airlift Wing of the NY Air National Guard is the only operational LC-130 unit in the world. It’s mission is to transport personnel and cargo for the U.S. Antarctic Program’s scientific research stations on the South Pole. Anything heading south – all the way south – from toothpaste to scientists, gets there by air.
It’s the ultimate challenge for all members of the crew, says LTC. Paul Sheppard, one of the pilots. “Everybody gets a challenge out of it. Nobody gets to sit back and watch it happen.”
The two pilots are obviously busy trying to mentally turn the ice and snow into a landing site, but the other members of the crew face equally difficult challenges. “The flight engineer has a one-of-a-kind airplane with a ski system on it. It’s very complex. He has to troubleshoot and manage them and know how much they can take.”
Navigators are trying to find their way on a continent with almost no navigational aids. “They’re doing airborne radar approaches to sites that are marked by a couple of pieces of metal, and they’re doing that right in the weather.”
Loadmasters usually do their jobs so quietly and efficiently that few people appreciate the skill involved. Not so on the South Pole. “They’re not going to have a forklift or anything coming up to a lot of these sites. They have to winch on pallet after pallet off the open snow, working in the back end of an airplane where it’s often 40 to 50 below zero.”
No matter how experienced, the crews find that outguessing Mother Nature isn’t always possible. It’s hard to read the snow, and sometimes that means staying longer than planned.
“If the weather is bad, you may just have to sit and wait,” says LTC. Sheppard, who says the crews ‘go camping’ several times a season. Freshly fallen snow is particularly hazardous. “New snow is very difficult to work with. You wait a day or 12 hours for it to firm up. It’s not like you can just take off. You may sink into the snow 2 or 3 feet and be dragging the belly of the airplane right into the snow.”
The Antarctic ‘season’ runs during the South Pole’s ‘summer,’ from October through February. As many as 200 scientists and support personnel live on the continent then. During the ‘off-season,’ the 109th stays sharp by flying missions to Greenland, where conditions are not as brutal, but are still challenging.
Because of the distances involved, the missions are usually at least a week long. That means a lot of TDY. “We try to hold 90 days TDY for the full-timers. The traditional Guardsmen can go as much or as little as they want. Some do a week in the Antarctic and a week in Greenland, or something like that.”
Most of the crewmembers have pretty ordinary civilian jobs, which is one reason why being part of the 109th is so exciting. “They know how unusual it is and what a challenge it is. It can scratch an itch a lot of people don’t even know is out there.”
Coast Guard’s A-Team
During the Cold War, troops were positioned en masse at strategic locations. That’s changed now, with forces moving into an area in response to a situation. Instead of large, permanent bases with on-going logistical operations, ships loaded with equipment sail to a secure port for off-loading while troops are flown in to meet them.
Coast Guard Port Security Units play a major role in protecting those ships. Commander Richard Daniels of CG Port Security Unit 311, based in San Pedro, CA, explains that the Coast Guardsmen fly to the intended port and are waiting when the ship arrives. “We will prepare the port. We make sure no one or nothing that will cause harm is in the area. We escort the ship from port entry until it’s docked, then establish a protection zone from the water to land while the ship is off-loading.”
The Port Security Units are part of a multi-pronged strategy to avert hostile actions in foreign ports. The Harbor Defense Command is the umbrella organization staffed by both Navy and Coast Guard personnel that works with local authorities.
“The highest priority is on protecting the ship and cargo during arrival and off-loading.” Under that directive, as many as five other units can be called in. The Port Security Unit monitors on-shore and surface activities. The Naval Mobile In Shore Undersea Warfare Unit uses fixed sensors, radar, and acoustic equipment to monitor activities in and under the water. An Explosive Ordnance Unit and Mobile Diving Salvage Unit are on hand to detect and defuse any explosive devices and to clean up and repair damage if any explosive are detonated. “We’re all very happy if those two units spend the entire deployment just reading books,” Daniels says.
There are six Port Security Units. In addition to Daniels’ unit in San Pedro, there are units in Port Eustes, Great Lakes, Miami, New Orleans, and Seattle. While most people think that the Coast Guard operates only in US waters and in domestic situations, the Port Security Units have performed this duty everywhere except in Korea. Three of the units were in place during Desert Shield and the Persian Gulf War.
Of the 145 members of Unit 311, 140 are reservists. Half of them requested the unit by name. The other half have a critical skill and were assigned to it. The units deploy by air on no less than four days’ notice.
“It obviously depends on the situation, but our training is such that we are ready to go in four days, although we have trained for a situation requiring less time. We need to arrive before the ship gets in.”
Using the Coast Guard instead of traditional Navy personnel for port security is a smart move, according to Commander Daniels. While they can handle ship movements and naval operations, they lack the Coast Guard’s intimate knowledge of port operations, particularly civilian ports.
“All ports operate alike. Over time and through experience, we know what is normal and abnormal in a port. We have the resident and required skills to understanding a port. We can see something and know ‘this is normal.’ But we can also say, ‘that guy’s acting too hard to appear normal. Watch him.'”
The time needed to develop that intuition among naval and other personnel could be better spent letting them concentrate on their specialties. Using the Coast Guard Port Security Units strengthens the entire military system.
“This is a way to keep the forces nimble and versatile.”