NEWS | May 27, 2021

Virginia’s aviation assets test response tools as hurricane season nears

By Sgt. 1st Class Terra C. Gatti JFHQ Public Affairs

As hurricane season inched closer to the East Coast, aviators from the Virginia National Guard participated in an exercise managed by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management to test the state’s air operations plan. The exercise, held May 10, 2021, at the Army Aviation Support Facility in Sandston, Virginia, made use of a new mission assignment tool and ensured communications capabilities between participating agencies.
 
“We’re coming up with a plan to coordinate air rescue during a disaster,” explained Bryan Saunders, VDEM’s chief of search and rescue. If a major storm were to hit the state, Saunders said, it could bring dozens of air assets from within and outside the state, making communication and coordination paramount to mission success.
 
“It’s not just our aircraft,” explained Col. William X. Taylor, state aviation officer for the Virginia National Guard. “You have people coming in from other states and you have to be able to put the same comms package on every aircraft.”
 
Alongside the VNG and VDEM, members of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Virginia State Police, the Federal Aviation Administration, the North Carolina National Guard and the North Carolina Department of Public Safety participated in the exercise. All would be key players in the event a significant weather event hit Virginia.
 
With the new air operations system in place, in the event of a catastrophic storm, participating aircraft would fly to Richmond, receive an in-brief and be rapidly ready to rescue Virginians in need.
 
“If we bring in 20 helicopters from other states, they come in, they do their brief, they get assigned their log-in information and they’re out doing business in the next two hours after they get here,” explained Chief Warrant Officer 5 Marvin McKenney, state standardization pilot for the Virginia National Guard.
 
During the exercise, four air crews - two from the VNG and one each from the VSP and USCG - took to the skies to put the new mission assignment tool to the test. Each of the aircraft had several notional missions to respond to, all assigned to them via an app that the flight crews downloaded to their smart devices before take-off. The app provides flight crews with key details, like the location of the rescue and other relevant information. Flight crews can then fly to the aid of stranded citizens, rescue them and then, once the mission is complete, log the number of personnel rescued before heading off to the next mission. They can also react to and log unexpected missions if they happened across individuals needing aerial evacuation.
 
“Say they’re flying and they see somebody on a roof and they notice it’s not an assignment, they can hit an unassigned button, hoist those folks up and say, ‘we just rescued four from a mission we didn’t have in our device,’” Saunders explained.
 
On the back end, the app also provides a snapshot of air operations in the form of a customizable dashboard. It can show how many flight crews are available and on mission, how many missions have been completed, how many people have been rescued, and more.
 
“It gives us much greater situational awareness as to where our guys are, what they’re doing, when we can task them, when they’re done with tasks,” McKenney explained. “It gives us a lot more fluid control, instead of eating up a couple of hours to figure out what’s going on.”
 
The dashboard lets leaders know if their air assets are in the right location and if they have too many or too few crews responding.
 
“By looking at the dashboard, we can see, you know what, there’s 12 unassigned over here, but we’re not getting calls for requests, maybe we need to concentrate on that area, or do an overflight or something to make sure we don’t need to commit more resources to that area,” said Saunders.
 
Moving forward, McKenney said the intent is to conduct a similar exercise biannually, to “continue to validate the system.”
 
Hurricane season begins June 1, and runs through November 30, with a peak occurring between mid-August and late October, according to VDEM. Virginians are encouraged to have a plan in place before the storm comes to ensure the safety and well-being of themselves and their loved ones. More information on hurricane preparedness can be found here.