Since Cold War days, U.S. airmen have hunched over radar screens and computer terminals at McChord Field outside Tacoma. They monitor for intruders and anything else amiss in the Western skies.
Some of those airmen pivoted to a very different mission early last week, remotely coordinating aerial rescues in Texas.
One of the silver linings of Hurricanes Harvey—and now Irma—is that telephone, radio communication and radar links mostly survived the storms. That allowed Washington Air National Guard Captain Nick Rhodes and fellow air battle managers to orchestrate rescues in Texas from a windowless control center near Tacoma.
Rhodes recalled this week how the overwhelmed 911 center in Houston passed along phone numbers of people trapped by flooding.
"I was able to call the person and I got a hold of a gentleman on the ground in Texas,” Rhodes said. “I introduced myself as from the Washington Air National Guard. 'Do you need assistance?' First of all, he was incredibly confused as to why I was calling from Washington. I had to say, 'State, not DC.'"
Rhodes explained as he guided in a Coast Guard chopper to rescue the man’s neighbor.
"We had the street address that I got from the gentleman on the phone,” he said. “We actually just used Google Maps to get a lat-long and passed that to the helicopter."
Rhodes and his teammates could talk to all of the military and many of the civilian search and rescue assets on the ground and in the air and see them on radar from nearly 2,000 miles away. Also in the loop was an Air Force eye-in-the-sky AWACS plane with a rotating radar dome, circling high overhead to provide command and control.
A later especially dramatic rescue involved more than a 100 people at a school being rapidly enveloped by rising floodwaters from a broken dam near Vidor, Texas.
“In a matter of 48 minutes, we were able to get 10 Coast Guard, Air Force and Customs and Border Protection helicopters in the area,” Rhodes said. “They had to do multiple trips, but they got everybody out in under an hour which is a feat in itself. As the last helicopter was pulling off, the pilot mentioned the roof just went underwater.”
Lt. Colonel Eric Corder said the hectic communications relay on top of the unit's regular air defense mission guarding the Western skies lasted four days.
"We can document approximately 822 rescues that were attributed to some of the efforts from here in Washington state,” Corder said.
The nuclear-blast resistant operations floor on Joint Base Lewis-McChord was calm again during a visit this week. Western Air Defense Sector leaders are talking daily to share tips with their colleagues back east who are handling U.S. military assets for Hurricane Irma.
The way Irma has played out though, many fewer people needed aerial rescue.
"We have done some limited training to prepare for something like this," Corder said. "But for us in particular it was fairly unique opportunity."
Corder said during Hurricane Katrina, the closest analogous situation in recent history, the Federal Emergency Management Agency did not call for the Western Air Defense Sector's assistance with remote rescues, which might not have been technologically possible then anyway.
WADS is part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, sometimes known better as NORAD. Movie buffs may remember the 1983 movie “War Games,” in which the character played by Matthew Broderick infiltrates NORAD. The operations center built inside a Colorado mountain depicted in the movie has a passing resemblance—after making allowances for more modern computer terminals and monitors—to the setting at McChord Field where the Washington Air National Guard team coordinated rescues last week. However, the bunker-like Western air defense center is above ground.
Last week each air battle controller sat in front of four computer screens with other monitors overhead and sticky notes galore. Rhodes said he often was simultaneously listening to different radio or phone conversations in each ear.