Shortly after 6 a.m. Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. The storm would a create a lasting humanitarian crisis and send thousands of emergency workers into action.
Members of the 126th Air Refueling Wing at Scott Air Force Base were among the crews mobilized in the days following the storm. Puerto Rico continues its slow recovery almost three months later, with nine members of the wing still on the ground helping with recovery efforts.
The first crew to go was notified 10 days after the storm hit. In the following weeks, the wing sent 13 volunteer security personnel from Scott Air Force Base along with an eight-person team to assist with communication efforts on the stricken island.
The wing’s efficiency and readiness over the past two years not only in Puerto Rico but in the Middle East helped them earn an Air Force Outstanding Unit Award recently. Col. Jeffrey Jacobson, vice-commander for the wing, said the key to their success is having “a synergy that we enjoy when everyone works together to work towards that common goal.”
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That synergy was put to the test when Hurricane Maria hit.
“We knew the storms were coming, but we didn’t know how bad they would be,” Jacobson said. “But we always prepare and train for these kinds of things. We were ready.”
The first crew to go was tasked with delivering food, water and medical supplies to Puerto Rico. They were also tasked with picking up Louisiana Army National Guard personnel and bringing them to the devastated island for relief efforts. The crew had only two days to complete their mission.
When asked how the wing reacted to their sudden mission, Jacobson said, “To be honest with you, this is what we do.”
Within 24 hours of their assignment on the evening of Sept. 30, the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, an aerial refueling plane, was prepared for liftoff. Their first stop was Louisiana, where they loaded 15,000 pounds of water, ready-to-eat meals and medical supplies along with 39 soldiers.
Two pilots, two refueling operators and three maintenance chiefs boarded the aircraft on the Sunday afternoon following their orders and flew for 15 hours to complete their mission. On the plane were pilot and aircraft commander Lt. Col. Nicolas Henschel, pilot Maj. Anthony Meyers, and boom operators Master Sgt. Jameson Liggett and Staff Sgt. Korbin Hays. Boom operators are normally responsible for operating refueling equipment on the aircraft, but their emergency mission in Puerto Rico was to help deliver supplies and personnel.
Assigned as maintenance crew chiefs were Senior Master Sgt. Barton Swett, Master Sgt. Carlos Fernandez and Tech. Sgt. Peter Perry.
By midnight Sunday, the crew landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico after stopping in Louisiana. One boom operator, Sgt. Liggett, described the airport as heavily damaged, dark and austere. Liggett’s co-operator, Sgt. Hays, said landing in Puerto Rico was “a humbling experience.”
“Just to see the overall participation of how everybody came together and was there to help the cause and make sure these people got back on their feet,” Hays said. “We did this with people that are part-timers and they stepped up to the call and came in on their time off from the Guard and really assisted in the process.”
They quickly unloaded supplies and personnel to make way for more planes, then made their way to Florida, where they landed shortly after 4 a.m. Monday.
In 2015 and 2016, the 126th Air Refueling Wing won awards for being the most fuel-efficient wing of any KC-135 unit in the United States. There are more than 25 units in the U.S. including active duty, reserve and Air National Guard, according to Jacobson.
The wing was also awarded for having the best mission capability rate in 2016 and 2017. This award is given to units who have the highest percentage of response readiness. The Air Refueling Wing’s rating was at 82 percent, surpassing all Air Force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve flying wings.
“It’s a pretty prestigious award and it really rewards all our airmen for all the work they do,” Jacobson said.
Hays said he is proud of his wing’s award.
“It’s an amazing feeling to get recognized for the hard work that we as a unit have put in to help the situations and do our best that we can do, everything that we can do to make the mission happen,” Hays said.