By Capt. Cathleen Snow, 380th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
/ Published February 19, 2010
SOUTHWEST ASIA --
Chaos results when the world changes faster than people.
A blizzard in the Afghanistan war zone Feb. 8 swiftly effected that change causing a series of 17 avalanches in the Parwan Province killing dozens and leaving hundreds more injured and stranded.
While Afghan National Army and International Security Assistance Force assets scrambled to the aid of avalanche victims, a U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry aircraft crew from the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing at an undisclosed base in Southwest Asia, was preparing for "another day of work" in the combat zone. When they started their pre-flight planning, some of the crew noticed their proverbial in-box stacked higher than usual.
Their intelligence briefing included the "normal" real-world information needed prior to taking off for Afghanistan and, "we were also told about the disaster and possible survivors on the ground and the potential support they may need," said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Lipsky, E-3 Sentry (AWACS) mission crew commander, 965th Expeditionary Airborne Air Control Squadron.
Colonel Lipsky and his crew of 23 Airmen deployed here from the 552nd Air Control Wing, Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., set out to do what they do best, take control of the sky. With their usual intensity, his crew members "switched on the office lights" of their airborne mission suite and began pouring through multiple checklists to get the 40-year old, aged, but effective airborne warning and control systems aircraft airborne and initiate its battle-management capabilities.
Two-dozen aircrew and 14 different crew positions, some requiring multiple personnel to manage, allows the E-3 AWACS aircraft to support troops on the ground in multiple ways. In this case, bringing security and safety to a congested airborne emergency while supporting the war.
"These Airmen have the resolve to multi-task. They know that lives in the air and on the ground depend on their ability to execute the mission flawlessly. I demand a lot from these crews," said Brig. Gen. Bryan Benson, 380th AEW Commander, who flew with them on this mission to carry out the dual missions of humanitarian and combat support. "They never cease to amaze me," he said.
The crews went in and managed a situation that had spun out of control. On the humanitarian side, "We entered the AOR (area of responsibility) preparing to take over for the ongoing personnel recovery operation underway. We monitored the situation and helped assets as they surveyed the area where the avalanche occurred," said Colonel Lipsky.
In their view from the sky, they saw what needed to be done. The first thing they did was, "provide information on possible landing zones for the rescue helicopters below," said Colonel Lipsky who went on to describe how the compliment of aircrew manage their respective roles to get control of the situation.
The crew positions are divided into four main teams as follows: "Capt (Timothy) Studdard's (senior director) team talks to assets making sure they get from their home base to the rescue site safely and effectively; Capt. (Michael) Hogan's (air surveillance officer) team surveys the area for all (air) traffic out there; and Capt (Paul) Kulpa's (aircraft commander) team allows us to do our job to make sure the aircraft is in right place at the right time, and we have technicians that run your communications, computers and sensor capabilities."
Next they expedited the flow of aircraft traffic by establishing a restricted operating zone over the area to keep other aircraft from over flying the rescue site. Their goal was not only to restrict unnecessary air traffic, but to maintain a good flow of information from the Combined Air Operations Center on the ground at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, to the aircraft flying the humanitarian support.
"The CAOC gave us the parameters which we enter into or system that displays it on a situational awareness scope so we can see it and keep all aircraft that are not participating, out of the area," said Captain Studdard.
"We can see the entire air space - any commercial or military traffic that goes in and out of the area. We can talk to the military aircraft so they can enter and exit the area freely. This allows rescue aircraft to get to who needs help," said Captain Hogan.
They also manage the fuel aspect to make sure all airborne assets have enough gas at all times.
"Since we have a birds-eye view of entire air space, we can see where the tankers are. For example, there's a tanker at this bearing at this range and they have this much gas to give you," said Captain Hogan.
"We have sensors on jet that can listen for radars and threats and label what those threats will be," said Colonel Lipsky. "We are a tactical command and control platform that has intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance ability."
In addition to organizing and prioritizing the battle space, they can call on the right asset, at the right time, to carry out a function - for example, a fighter aircraft to police the air space.
"We are trained to understand capabilities of all other military aircraft that we are controlling in the battle space so we can apply the right aircraft to the right situation," said Captain Studdard. "To figure out the threat, then use that battle management function to tell friendly forces where those tracks of interest, or enemy aircraft, are."
For the humanitarian effort, the crew controlled 78 aircraft, which is slightly above an average day, they said. Additionally, in their over watch capacity, they monitored approximately 500 different aircraft with the use of the 8,000lb, 30-foot plate like radar dome mounted aft of the wings.
"We make sure all assets supporting Operation Enduring Freedom as well as the personnel recovery effort are getting to their assigned mission, safely, not running into anyone else, and effectively, making sure they have all information they need," said Colonel Lipsky.
Their communications capacity is another element that ensures the chaos is under control.
"After we channeled air assets into the area to support the avalanche victims, these aircraft used organic sensors to provide the ground picture for us - The placement for a landing zone, as well as any geographical barriers, like a mountain pass," said Captain Hogan.
"We take all of these little snapshots from radio transmission we receive from all these other aircraft and put them together to make a big picture," said Captain Studdard.
A big picture that ultimately led to transporting more than 200 people to safety, rescuing several trapped motorists and 70 trapped civilians, some of whom were injured, and transporting them to Bagram Air Field for medical care.
"On any given day, we train to expect the unexpected. Even though we're here to support combat, our training allows us to be ready for anything. It's not uncommon for us to support humanitarian efforts like we did in support of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans. We'll help out coalition forces in any way we can," said Lt. Col. Jimmy Warren, EAACS Commander.