09:54 AM

Fla. Members Assist in Storm-Stricken Puerto Rico

Five members from the Florida Wing’s Jacksonville Composite Squadron spent 11 days as part of “Team 5,” assisting continuing relief efforts in Puerto Rico after the lasting devastation wrought nine months earlier by Hurricane Maria. 

Lt. Col. Gary Nelson, the squadron’s officer for communications and disaster preparedness, was assigned incident commander duties for the mission. Maj. Giorgio Mugno temporarily worked on logistics support, and Cadet Capt Joseph Nelson reported to the communications center. Majs. Ralph Aviles, the unit’s deputy commander for seniors, and Wayne Henderson, operations officer, joined the aircrew team.

Mugno soon joined an aircrew as well and flew early missions with 2nd Lts. Steve Stigler and Steve Chamberland, members of the Georgia Wing’s Gwinnett County Composite Squadron. Crew interactions were seamless thanks to CAP's standardization training.

By the end of the mission, Mugno had flown 11 sorties totaling 24.1 hours.

Most Civil Air Patrol planes operated out of Isla Grande Airport, adjacent to the operations center at the Convention Center in San Juan. The airport is a base for Puerto Rico Army National Guard helicopters, and the sky was crowded with Black Hawks, Chinooks and Ospreys, all supporting the relief efforts and preparing for a visit by President Donald Trump.

Extreme vigilance had to be observed to maintain air traffic separation and avoid the dangers of the turbulence whipped up by arriving and departing aircraft. A Cessna 182 was flipped upside while landing, and the pilot was fatally injured.

After initial billeting on the TS Empire State VI, the training ship assigned to the State University of New York Maritime College, the Florida Wing members were reassigned to housing in the local Sheraton Hotel. One evening Mugno found himself sharing an elevator with Brig. Gen. Richard C. Kim, deputy commander of operations, U.S. Army North, responsible for coordinating activities among the military, government agencies and the private sector.

Mugno was in a flight suit, and Kim asked if he was with CAP. When Mugno replied in the affirmative, Kim said they were using CAP’s aerial photos and praised the organization’s efforts.

Much of the infrastructure that once supported air operations was still in disarray, so air traffic control was rudimentary but effective.

On one sortie, Mugno landed at Ponce’s Mercedita Airport, where field operations were controlled from an improvised “tower” fabricated from a platform and tarp mounted on top of a maintenance stand. An airman in his 20s sat on top and functioned as both a tower and ground controller, using a hand-held radio. An orange streamer taped to a nearby pole provided wind velocities for arriving and departing traffic.

After a week, the Florida Wing contingent handed their share of the operations over to Capt. Luis Herrera, inspector general of the Puerto Rico Wing, who had worked to facilitate coordination with other supporting agencies.