VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- When severe weather is on the horizon, Team Vance jumps into action to develop a contingency plan for evacuating all the aircraft to safer locations.
The Weather Shop first meets with the 71st Operations Group to provide a forecast made from scratch. Just like the news teams create a forecast for the local population, the Weather Shop does that for Vance.
“Our job is to tell the Operations Group commander what the maximum potential of a perfect storm could be, and also what we’re actually predicting based on the data,” said the 71st Operations Support Squadron Weather Flight Chief, Master Sgt. Josh McCaslin. “From there, the Operations Group leadership makes the final call.”
Col. Erick Turasz, the 71st Operations Group commander, decides on whether to send the fleet off or not.
“There are lots of moving pieces in planning for a weather evacuation, but at the end of the day safety is our number one priority,” said Turasz.
Once the decision is made to evacuate, various flight commanders and programming jobs are assigned to figure out the logistics of moving a whole bunch of people and equipment in a short amount of time.
“We tend to do this on short notice so the goal is to make it as simple as possible,” said Lt. Col. Dennis Carmody, the director of operations for the 3rd Flying Training Squadron. “I need parking, fuel, places to stay and pilot availability.”
They also take into account if an airfield has a government fuel contract.
“On the most recent evac, we went to Davis-Monthan (Air Force Base, Arizona),” said Carmody. “We look at where the weather looks good for both departure and return for the entire time. That drives us in a general direction. Then we look at places that we're familiar with that have a large ramp and can accommodate us.”
Other common evacuation locations include Centennial Airport, near Denver, Colorado, and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Arizona. The goal is to avoid weather and deconflict airspace for departure and return.
For aircraft to stay local, the “Joint Use Hangar” at Woodring Regional Airport, about six miles east of the base, is one of the primary locations that Vance planes will evacuate to. This partnership with the City of Enid reduces the number of aircraft required to leave the area.
Prior to take-off, squadron leadership contacts the selected airfields to ensure there is hangar space available for the evacuation.
Once the destinations are set, instructor pilots are asked to flight plan for the evacuation.
“Often we will utilize students to fly our planes which allows us to get student events done as well,” said Carmody.
Aircrews pack their overnight bags and show times for takeoffs adjust to account for a longer duty day.
On the most recent weather evacuation in late October, 2nd Lt. Caitlin Bitting, a student in the 8th Flying Training Squadron, was tasked to be a part of the evacuation.
“It was stressful at first because we didn’t know where we were going, or how long we would be there,” said Bitting. “But once we started mission planning, the training kicked in and it was fun being part of a ‘real’ mission - beyond the day-to-day training.”
Students go on the evacuation flights to obtain cross-country flight hours. If the weather lasts long enough, training sorties may be completed at the alternate locations.
“It was really empowering to realize that we are capable of last minute changes, and we overcame them really well,” said Bitting. “We were then able to get a few sorties done over the weekend that we wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Once the weather passes, each squadron begins planning their return.
They take into account arrival times and weather. Vertex crew chiefs can handle around 15 planes landing per hour depending on the airframe type. On a good weather day, all runways are used, making the return fast and fluid.
“These evacuations are successful because each member of Team Vance is dedicated to being an expert in their piece of the mission,” said Col. Jay Johnson, 71st Flying Training Wing commander. “It’s a total team effort.”