• CAP Puerto Rico Hurricane Maria Recovery Mission Part 1

    Blue Water Air Force

    CAP Puerto Rico Hurricane Maria Recovery Mission

    By Tony Vallillo

    CAP was involved early on in the recovery effort after Hurricane Maria blasted the island with 150+ mph winds and torrential rains. Although not a state, Puerto Rico nonetheless has a Civil Air Patrol Wing and the two Cessna aircraft assigned there were apparently kept safe from damage, and were available to fly sorties as soon as the airports got up and running again.

    There are two airports in the San Juan area - the big international airport over on Isla Verde, TJSJ, or San Juan International as it is otherwise known, and a smaller airport much closer to downtown and Old San Juan, known as Isla Grande airport (TJIG). It must have taken a day or two for these airports to get cleaned up and operating after the storm, but soon after they came on line the local CAP Wing was tasked for mission flying in support of the recovery effort.

    CAP had already been flying for almost two weeks when we arrived. There was a swarm of helicopters, both military and civilian, scurrying back and forth to the isolated communities in the mountains.

    CAP does not fly helicopters, of course, so our participation in recovery efforts is more oriented toward airborne damage assessment, both by eyeball and more importantly by aerial photography. As I indicated in the first chapter of this missive, aerial photography (or AP as it is also known) is fast becoming the core mission of the modern Civil Air Patrol. And so it was that some of the local pilots, who could actually get to the airport and the two airplanes, started flying photo missions for FEMA, the agency in overall charge of the efforts.

    Puerto Rico is a big island - very close to the size of the state of Connecticut - and it soon became apparent that additional resources would be needed - especially more airplanes - if CAP was to do as much imaging as FEMA wanted and do it quickly. Around 10 days after the storm hit, two Cessna 182's were sent down from Florida Wing to augment the efforts. In addition, the call went out for the Jumbo of CAP, the Gippsland GA-8 Airvan, and that is how yours truly became involved.

    The GA-8 Airvan is an Australian design that bears a remarkable resemblance to the box that a Cessna 182 would have come in. It is a bush airplane - big, slow, easy to handle and with huge windows that are well suited for observation. The airplane was sought not only for photo missions, but also for those sorties when FEMA officials or other people might need to ride along to make a first person assessment. The Cessnas are not really suited for this since an AP crew is composed of three people and the missions require a full load of fuel. The Airvan, on the other hand, can carry up to 7 people in addition to the pilot, even with a full fuel load. The airplane seemed perfect for the job. CAP had originally purchased 18 Airvans and based them around the country in various states. Several are based on the east coast, including one at Maryland Wing and another a bit further south in Virginia Wing. It was to these two Wings that the call went out on the 30th of September to send the airplanes and two crews of pilots and photographers to Florida to prepare for an overwater odyssey.

    I was actually a bit surprised when I heard that CAP was intending to fly the airplanes down to Puerto Rico, rather than just using the two they already had down there and flying additional crews in and out via commercial or military air. Long overwater flights in single engine airplanes were not something I had heard of CAP doing, at least during my 10 year membership. However, short of loading a few onto an aircraft carrier and taking them down there a la Jimmy Doolittle, there's really no other choice. I very much doubt a GA-8 would fit into a C-5, at least with the wings still attached, and so the only way to get them down there would be to fly them.

    Our four person life raft, our risk mitigation element to keep the sharks hungry. In the event, we did not need it!

    I have spent virtually my entire professional life as an aviator flying over one ocean or another; indeed, I have flown hundreds of trips in and out of San Juan and many more to just about every place in the Caribbean and mid Atlantic that a big jet can operate. But I had yet to fly far over water in a single engine airplane. My own SkySkooter would be hard pressed to operate even 10 miles away from land, considering that there is no place aboard it for a life raft, which is a vital piece of equipment for any flight beyond gliding distance of the shore. CAP does have a few missions that go beyond gliding distance, such as the various bay and shore patrols that some Wings have during summer months, but these are hardly blue water operations and land is always in sight and close at hand. The longest overwater mission I had previously flown involved playing target for Air Defense fighters out to around 70nm from Atlantic City a few years ago. We had life jackets, a raft, and we wore exposure suits for those flights, but you could still see the glow of the lights of Atlantic City after dark and there was thus some reassurance. This mission promised to be different.

    1. _CAT_FISH_'s Avatar
      _CAT_FISH_ -
      WOW, Epic!! Congrats brother in CAP. That was fit for a short movie! but I have the inside on how CAP missions go, I personally like taking images, when it's not dead of summer, seems like I always get that plane that has to fly east in the heat of the afternoon. I was impressed an glad to hear you guys found a way to get the maps! Impressive photos an I must say, I am eager for the next chapter!

      Major T. Rea
      Arkansas Wing

      Great Work you guys did down there!! And I sure enjoy reading about it!!
    1. aisen's Avatar
      aisen -
      I was a CAP cadet many years ago (1989-1991). I enjoyed my time in my local squadron and I really learned a whole lot. (airvans where not in the inventory in those days!). Your work here in the island has been very important amd I thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking the time to come down here and help us. I only wish that if you come back one day, you find a different Puerto Rico that the one you saw in your missions here.
    1. aisen's Avatar
      aisen -
      God bless you all and happy landings!

      Aisen D. Lopez, REMT-FP
      Past CAP cadet, C/AFC, Mayaguez High School Cadet Squadron - 52002
      PR Wing


      Can't wait for the next chapter
    1. avallillo's Avatar
      avallillo -
      I always enjoyed my layovers in Puerto Rico back in the day. The island has indeed been ravaged by nature, but what was truly amazing on our trip was the resilience and positive attitude of the people we encountered, especially the local CAP members. The command post was always fully staffed and the airplanes were most always in the air, many of them manned by local crews whose own homes were without electricity and water and often damaged. In the midst of all this you all still pitched in and helped out in the recovery efforts for the entire island.

      My hat is off to all of the people of Puerto Rico, and especially our CAP members of the Puerto Rico Wing!

      Tony Vallillo
    1. pinkyjr's Avatar
      pinkyjr -
      If anyone is interested Photorico Scenery makes the TJIG airport with the CAP facilities.

      Happy flights!
    1. capvtail's Avatar
      capvtail -
      Wow, Tony! What an outstanding travelogue! It's almost like I was sitting there suffering through the GA-8 ride right alongside you. One for the log book.
      Tom North
    1. richardmarko's Avatar
      richardmarko -
      Attachment 201798
    1. pinkyjr's Avatar
      pinkyjr -
      Attachment 205060
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