TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
129 miles per hour...that was the last wind speed recorded at Tyndall Air Force Base and the highest official on-land wind report recorded before the weather sensors were shredded as Hurricane Michael made landfall just after noon directly over the Florida Panhandle’s 325th Fighter Wing.
The sensors were not the only thing decimated as the rest of the base faced the wrath of the hurricane’s northern and western eyewall. By the time the skies finally cleared later that evening on Oct. 10, 2018, the storm had crippled the base’s infrastructure and left a trail of catastrophic damage across the local area.
When the 821st Contingency Response Group arrived on-scene at Tyndall AFB Oct. 12, 2018, to provide relief, supplies, and professionals to establish air-worthy base operations again at the beleaguered fighter base, they discovered the flight line’s crippled infrastructure no longer had sensing equipment to land aircraft in inclement weather.
The call went out from Air Combat Command’s Crisis Action Team to the nearest unit that could respond to re-establish on-site weather observations for the airfield.
Just four days after Michael’s landfall, weather systems support cadre members from the 2nd Combat Weather Systems Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida, Technical Sergeants Jacob Reinhardt and Thomas Heath, jumped into the squadron’s pick-up truck.
The 2nd CWSS Airmen brought with them one of the unit’s Tactical Meteorological Observing Systems that are normally used to provide deployed weather sensing technology at hundreds of austere sites around the world.
They arrived at Tyndall AFB to find the base still littered with downed trees, debris, and heavy facility damage, especially to flight line buildings. They met up with Master Sgt. Nathan Tawbush, an 821st CRG weather professional, to re-establish critical weather observations for the airfield. Instead of setting up the equipment brought from Hurlburt Field, the team was able to innovatively salvage Tyndall’s own tactical system from storage, connect it to the newly established mobile air traffic control tower, and overcome severed communications lines by leveraging satellite communications technology to automatically broadcast current weather conditions.
The new winds on the first observation recorded a light southerly wind at 8 mph with clear skies. 325th Fighter Wing leaders finally had a measure for personnel heat loads affecting recovery efforts and Tanker Airlift Control Center planners could finally monitor changing conditions for their airlift relief missions.
“Focused teams all around the base were providing vital support needed for quick recovery,” Reinhardt said.
Mission accomplishment comes in more ways than just operational though as the 2nd CWSS team also took time to care for a fellow 557th Weather Wing teammate whose family’s home in Panama City had been devastated by Hurricane Michael.
A dozen members and spouses from the 2nd CWSS joined Airmen from the Air Force Special Operations Command’s 23rd Special Operations Weather Squadron and Air Force Materiel Command’s 96th Weather Squadron to make the two-hour trek into Panama City in a race against time to salvage the family’s antique heirlooms and valuables from encroaching mold following the storm.
The majority of the trip was like any other across Florida’s Highway 20, but conditions began to change about 15 miles from the home as downed trees began to increase. At five miles out from the property, the landscape was unrecognizable with nearly every tree snapped like toothpicks and downed power lines as far as the eye could see as a result of the strongest hurricane to hit the U.S. in five decades.
“Being there and actually seeing the destruction put a new perspective on how quickly life can change from one day to another,” said Senior Master Sgt. Daniel Hayes, 2nd CWSS superintendent, who helped lead the effort.
As the team’s moving truck slowly navigated a narrow gravel corridor of uprooted trees, the team found the property riddled with debris, scattered house siding, and a tree pierced through the roof of the family’s home. Through heavy lifting, sweat, and careful steps, the team made quick work to load up the moving truck, off-load to a nearby storage unit, and bring relief to at least one family shell-shocked by the devastating impact of Hurricane Michael.
“The impact the team made for the family helped rebuild a little bit of stability that had been torn from them and provided a helping hand when they needed it most,” Hayes said.
Amidst the trail of destruction left by Hurricane Michael, the resilience of Tyndall AFB and the surrounding communities is proving strong and has been further revitalized by neighbors and wingmen across the Air Force who leapt into action at the call of service.