All Photos are Nicole Cloutier’s coverage of Hurevac arrivals at Pease ahead of Hurricane Michael, except where noted.
The United States has built a formidable network of air bases around the perimeter of the country. Originally, military air bases were established close to the Atlantic and Pacific shores so that the aircraft housed at the facilities could patrol and guard the oceanic approaches to big cities and manufacturing centers. Since the advent of World Wars One and Two, the focus of many of these air bases has evolved from purely defensive facilities to specialized homes to transports, trainers, strategic bombers and aerial tankers. A constant over the past century is that many air bases are still found near coastlines and population centers, which were settled during the 1700s and 1800s around the shipping trade – which was the main transportation method of commerce and travel before the innovation of aircraft. Many of these bases offer shorter transit times for aircraft travelling to Europe and Asian destinations. Additionally, training airspace is more usable offshore, keeping noise away from population centers and offering maneuvering space away from heavily used civilian airways.
Unfortunately, the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic seaboard are prime targets for hurricanes, those tropical storms that spool up in the same waters that the military bases were designed to defend. While facilities are designed and built to withstand the “average” hurricane of a Category One or Two storm, more powerful systems with their winds and storm surges can severely damage or destroy a base’s infrastructure. Some notable hurricane-damaged facilities include NAS Pensacola from Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Homestead AFB from Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and recently, Tindall AFB from Hurricane Michael in October, 2018.
There are emergency evacuation plans for the people and equipment on bases that find themselves in the path of hurricanes. Just about all military bases practice their own brand of risk analysis, and through their “Hurevac” (Hurricane Evacuation) plans have preplanned the evacuation of their base aircraft, in the event of a possible natural disaster like a hurricane. These function best with somewhat of an advance warning. For multi-million dollar aircraft, the flight from their home base to a facility out of harm’s way is normally planned a few days from the storm’s predicted impact to the base. Sometimes a week’s lead time is available for planning, sometimes less. Normally there’s a short-notice surge of aircraft maintenance to allow for as many planes as possible to be sent away. While I was an en route air traffic controller and Military Operations Specialist during the 1980s and 1990s, we received preplanned Altitude Reservation mission packages with pre-filed routes to allow rapid passage for a large number of aircraft, (with a high priority over training missions and routine flights) between pairs of air bases, especially from Air Force units. It seemed that each base had a “twin” or sister base which could receive the extra aircraft and crews for a few days until a storm would pass and any damage cleaned up.
The concept of these buddy bases worked OK as long as a hurricane didn’t target that second base too. Normally the other base was well inland, or much further north and the evacuated base, as hurricanes expend their energy rapidly as they pass over land and/or arrive in colder air. SAC bases in the Northeast hosted TAC units from the southeastern U.S., and for days the skies over New England would see scores of unusual visitors. There was one notable occurrence late in the last century when a hurricane‘s predicted path hugged the coast from Florida to Virginia, driving about a dozen bases to Hurevac their aircraft – literally hundreds of them – inland and to the northwest of the Atlantic coastline. Many of these fighters, bombers, tankers, transports and trainers wound up at Dayton Ohio’s Wright-Patterson AFB… Over 400 were temporarily housed on the ramps and taxiways of the base, and it was so packed that we got a message at Boston Center that no more arrivals could be accepted until some aircraft departed!
The recent megastorm Michael that devastated parts of the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend area is a good example of how hurevac missions work today. Hurricane Michael deeply intensified only a few days from shore, and was forecast to strike the Florida Panhandle before turning more easterly and expend itself over Georgia and the Carolinas. The twin base concept seems to have gone away, as many facilities have been shut down due to the BRAC closures. Ahead of this storm, some twenty five F-16 Fighting Falcons evacuated from South Carolina’s Shaw AFB and took up refuge in Portsmouth New Hampshire, at the former Pease AFB. Now a civilian-operated airport, the former SAC base still has ramp space to spare, plus it’s a secure facility due to scheduled airline service. The New Hampshire Air National Guard’s 157th ARW is based there too, so some ground support is available to the visitors in addition to their own crews.
Other aircraft, notably the F-22s from Tyndall AFB FL sheltered at Wright Patterson AFB OH. F-15 Strike Eagles from Seymour-Johnson AFB NC were ferried to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana, further west of the hurricane too. Moody AFB, the Air Force Special Operations aircraft based in Florida, Navy aircraft from the Pensacola area, several Air National Guard units and multiple Marine Corps Air Stations were also in the crosshairs of the storm, so there were many aircraft displaced over a few short days.
While most of the evacuated bases (such as Shaw AFB) saw limited damage, Tyndall AFB was devastated. Although more than a dozen F-22s were left behind (and damaged), the large majority of the base’s aircraft were safely deployed away from the storm, proof that the “hurevac” planning works, even with a relatively short notice.
While the protection of human lives is always at the forefront of preparation for a hurricane strike, the protection of high-value military equipment is almost as critical. Hurevac plans are developed to make the movement of aircraft out of harm’s way a bit easier and to take away some of the element of surprise for a large scale movement of jet aircraft. So, the next time you see a hurricane aiming for an area with a military aviation base nearby, remember that there’s most likely a Hurevac plan already in place for taking care of the people and the aircraft of that base.