WADS remotely saves over 800 Hurricane Harvey victims

The WADS team of Capt. Nicholas Rhodes (from left to right), Maj. Matthew Horrocks, Staff Sgt. Kayla Sharpe, and Capt. Gregory Firestone coordinate expeditiously with an orbiting AWACS aircraft and joint terminal attack controllers on the ground to assist with aviation rescue of  victims of Hurricane Harvey in areas surrounding Houston, Texas.

The WADS team of Capt. Nicholas Rhodes (from left to right), Maj. Matthew Horrocks, Staff Sgt. Kayla Sharpe, and Capt. Gregory Firestone coordinate expeditiously with an orbiting AWACS aircraft and joint terminal attack controllers on the ground to assist with aviation rescue of victims of Hurricane Harvey in areas surrounding Houston, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Kimberly D. Burke)

Capt. Nicholas Rhodes, WADS air battle manager, takes detailed notes while he communicates with a Hurricane Harvey victim via her cellphone.  Rhodes coordinates with an orbiting AWACS surveillance aircraft to coordinate the helicopter rescue of 11 people in Beaumont, Texas.  The caller’s two-year-old son was in dire need of medication due to a life threatening condition and her neighbor was 37 weeks pregnant and due to deliver her baby anytime.

Capt. Nicholas Rhodes, WADS air battle manager, takes detailed notes while he communicates with a Hurricane Harvey victim via her cellphone. Rhodes coordinates with an orbiting AWACS surveillance aircraft to coordinate the helicopter rescue of 11 people in Beaumont, Texas. The caller’s two-year-old son was in dire need of medication due to a life threatening condition and her neighbor was 37 weeks pregnant and due to deliver her baby anytime. (U.S. Air Force photo by Kimberly D. Burke)

Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Jansen Schamp, assigned to the Dragon Whales of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 28, reassures a family after a rescue at Pine Forest Elementary School, a shelter that required evacuation after flood waters from Hurricane Harvey reached its grounds. The Western Air Defense Sector provides critical
communications relay between the Texas Emergency Operations Center and the U.S. Navy in order to rescue over a hundred people from the school grounds.

Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Jansen Schamp, assigned to the Dragon Whales of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 28, reassures a family after a rescue at Pine Forest Elementary School, a shelter that required evacuation after flood waters from Hurricane Harvey reached its grounds. The Western Air Defense Sector provides critical communications relay between the Texas Emergency Operations Center and the U.S. Navy in order to rescue over a hundred people from the school grounds.

Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Jansen Schamp (Left) and Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Rion Johnson,  both assigned to the Dragon Whales of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 28, assist with a medical evacuation during Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.  The Western Air Defense Sector provided critical communications relay between the Texas Emergency Operations Center and the U.S. Navy that rescued over 100 people from the school grounds.  (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Christopher Lindahl)

Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Jansen Schamp (Left) and Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Rion Johnson, both assigned to the Dragon Whales of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 28, assist with a medical evacuation during Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. The Western Air Defense Sector provided critical communications relay between the Texas Emergency Operations Center and the U.S. Navy that rescued over 100 people from the school grounds. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Christopher Lindahl)

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- The Western Air Defense Sector on Joint Base Lewis-McChord diligently worked with dozens of agencies and first responders in direct support of search and rescue operations in the Houston area following the wake of destruction left by Hurricane Harvey since Aug 30.

“The WADS is normally tasked with the air defense of North America for NORAD,” said Col. Gregor Leist, WADS commander. “But by utilizing air battle management command and control skills, an extensive network of radio and telephone communication, radar and data link equipment and ingenuity and innovation, the Washington Air National Guardsmen of team BIGFOOT put their expertise to use to save over 800 people from rising flood waters.”

On Aug. 30, military authorities scrambled an Airborne Warning AND Control System surveillance aircraft from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., to the Houston area.

“The mission was for situational awareness,” said Col. William Krueger, 225th Air Defense Group commander. “But within a short amount of time the WADS began providing critical communications relay between the Texas Emergency Operations Center, rescue coordination centers, joint terminal air controllers and the U.S. Coast Guard helicopters who executed the SAR mission. The communications relay was needed due to cell tower and electrical outages throughout the Houston area.”

According to Lt. Col. Brian Bergren, 225th Air Defense Squadron director of operations, the WADS vast communication network was able to provide real-time rescue status updates for 11 hospitals, numerous helicopter landing zones and aircraft refueling areas over an area of approximately 25,000 square miles.”

“The WADS enhanced the decision-making abilities for those on the ground trying to rescue stranded people, and brought a sense of order to the chaotic airspace over the flood zone area,” Bergren said. “The dedication of these Washington Air Guardsman directly resulted in the safe execution of 148 flying sorties, 81 SAR events and the notable rescue of over 800 individuals.”

One poignant event that the WADS was involved with was the urgent call for help from one of the emergency coordination centers stating water had started flooding Pine Forest Elementary School, in Vidor, Texas, due to a dam break.

“There were over a hundred evacuees located there who needed immediate rescue,” said Capt. Nicholas Rhodes, air battle manager. “When helicopters arrived on scene to pick up the survivors, we smoothly and calmly directed the airborne assets to Houston area hospitals after ensuring landing zones were both available and safe.”

The Westen Air Defense Sector leadership had nothing but accolades for Maj. John Dalrymple, Maj. Matthew Horrocks, Capt. Nicholas Rhodes, Capt. Gregory Firestone, and Staff Sgt. Kayla Sharpe, all of whom remained calm under pressure during this rescue operation.

“This team was instrumental in expeditiously creating cohesive air extraction plans during the entire search and recovery effort,” explained Krueger.

The WADS air battle managers and command and control battle management operators from the Washington Air National Guard have completed the critical SAR support to Texas and Louisiana. This operation was the largest direct support effort to the Defense Support of Civil Authorities enterprise the WADS has participated since Sept. 11, 2001.