HURLBURT FIELD, FL — When Hurricane Michael began devastating much of the Florida panhandle with upwards of 150 mph gusts and rain on Oct. 10, it left many with uncertainty of what their community would look like when they returned home.
For a portion of that area, a ghosted and devastated Tyndall Air Force Base, it didn’t take long for support to start flowing in to aid. One day after Hurricane Michael hit the area, a Special Tactics troop with the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron was flown in on two CV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft assigned to the 8th Special Operations Squadron to assess, and if possible, open the airfield.
“We found that the devastation that we had seen on the news and open sources was accurate,” said Maj. Steven Cooper, commander of the 23rd STS. “There was significant damage on the base and debris on several of the taxi areas on the airfield.”
Special Tactics’ global access mission enables the U.S. military and its partner forces access across the globe, whether that is surveying landing zones for aircraft, or commanding mission support sites to project forces across the world. With this, Special Tactics Airmen have the ability to assess, open, and control major airfields to clandestine dirt strips in any environment, including those that have been impacted by a natural disaster.
With obstacles in sight and not enough runway for aircraft to land, the Airmen had to modify the airfield to ensure that aircraft landing criteria was met and there was a safe approach path for aircraft.
“We had to displace both the approach and departure end thresholds because of cables that were there,” Cooper said. “We were able to open up more than 7,000 feet of usable runaway and multiple taxi ways to bring in resupply aircraft and set conditions for offloading of those supplies.”
Within two hours of their arrival and successfully opening a runway, the Special Tactics Airmen controlled the first aircraft to land on Tyndall AFB, ultimately paving the way for follow on humanitarian relief efforts.
Over the next 72 hours, the Special Tactics troop controlled more than 30 aircraft carrying personnel and supplies to provide relief and aid future operations.
One of those initial aircraft was a C-17 Globemaster III carrying a small initial assessment team from the 821st Contingency Response Group, Travis Air Force Base, California.
“The ST troop had already cleared and prepared the runway for aircraft arrival, established communications for inbound aircraft and created an initial parking plan,” said Capt. Richardson, chief of group weapons and tactics with the 821st CRG. “Their initial actions when they arrived saved us valuable time once we were on site.”
After the assessment team surveyed the damage, a C-17 from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, transported a larger contingency response element of nearly 50 Airmen. On board, much needed equipment and supplies arrived for the re-initiation of airflow and for the initial clean-up and operations of the base.
With the 821st CRG’s arrival on Tyndall, the Special Tactics troop that initially set up air traffic operations was able to turnover and depart back to Hurlburt Field. Although the CRG is still working with temporary equipment and facilities, the CRG Air Traffic Controllers are able to control air operations and manage the airfield at Tyndall AFB. Conventional Air Force and CRG ATCs must be trained in accordance with Air Force regulations to be able to control air traffic in an austere environment, as Tyndall exists after Hurricane Michael.
“This was a text book (ST-CRG) turnover, exactly how it should be,” Cooper said. “Ideally we should go in for a short period of time, then hand over to the next force, which allows us to reset for the next potential tasking or contingency.”