Hurricane Zeta: Hurlburt, Whiting evacuate planes; some Tyndall exercises canceled
By JIM THOMPSON | Northwest Florida Daily News | Published: October 28, 2020
HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Aircraft were being evacuated from at least a couple of area military bases as Hurricane Zeta approached the shores of the northern Gulf Coast on Wednesday.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the approaching hurricane, expected to make landfall in Louisiana sometime Wednesday evening, prompted the posting of a tropical storm warning from the Mississippi- Alabama border eastward across Florida to the Walton County- Bay County line.
Hurlburt Field, headquarters of Air Force Special Operations Command, evacuated a number of its aircraft to Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville, Ark., according to Amy Nicholson, chief of public affairs for the 1st Special Operations Wing, the host unit at Hurlburt.
Among the aircraft at Hurlburt are the CV-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft that supports Special Operations forces, the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship, and the U-28A Draco, a single-engine aircraft that provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance services to Special Operations troops.
For operational security reasons, the installation could not disclose the exact number and types of aircraft evacuated, but Nicholson wrote in an email that Hurlburt "sent everything that was flyable (not down for maintenance) and those that we weren't able to hangar here" to Little Rock AFB.
The aircraft evacuated from Hurlburt "will return to base when the storm has passed and safe operating conditions return to the Panhandle area," according to a Tuesday evening news release from the 1st Special Operations Wing.
In addition, Col. Jocelyn Schermerhorn, the installation commander, directed that Hurlburt be limited to "mission essential personnel only" as of 6 p.m. Wednesday.
In the meantime, the base's 23rd Special Operations Weather Squadron was closely monitoring the storm, and the installation is also relying on forecasts from the National Hurricane Center.
Also evacuating aircraft in advance of Hurricane Zeta was Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Milton, a primary training location for both fixed-wing and helicopter pilots in the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
"All aircraft at NAS Whiting Field have been flown out of the area or are safely hangared on base," Julie Ziegenhorn, the installation's public affairs officer, wrote in a Wednesday morning email. NAS Whiting Field, along with its 13 outlying landing fields, has 143 T-6 Texan II fixed-wing aircraft and 113 TH-57 helicopters in its inventory.
As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, NAS Whiting Field was operating at the Navy's Condition of Readiness 1, which "means that conditions exist for possible destructive force winds (50 mph or greater) within 12 hours," Ziegenhorn wrote in the email. As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, only mission-essential personnel remained aboard NAS Whiting Field.
The approaching hurricane forced the cancellation of some events associated with the Air Force's Agile Flag 21-1, an Air Combat Command experiment hosted at Tyndall Air Force Base, which was outside the tropical storm warning area as of Wednesday afternoon. The initiative, which began Oct. 21 and was scheduled to wrap up Thursday, also included Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base.
Broadly, Agile Flag 21-1 was designed to test a new deployment protocol with the 366th Fighter Wing from Idaho's Mountain Home Air Force Base. F-15E fighter jets from Mountain Home's 389th Fighter Squadron were brought to Tyndall for the exercise, along with F-22 fighter jets from Alaska's Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
Hurlburt served as a forward operating base for the exercise, with Eglin serving as a contingency location. Hurlburt's role in Agile Flag 21-1 had been completed as of Wednesday morning, according to Nicholson.
In addition to Mountain Home and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Agile Flag 21-1 involved personnel from the 5th Combat Communication Group from Georgia's Robins Air Force Baser, along with various units and airmen from Air Mobility Command and Air Force Special Operations Command.
"The Agile Flag 21-1 experiment held at Tyndall Air Force Base was impacted by the oncoming storm," Tyndall spokesman Don Arias win a Wednesday email, "as some planned activities were cancelled to ensure the safety of involved personnel and aircraft."
But, Arias continued, "Air Combat Command and participating units accomplished the objective of this experiment, which was to test agile combat employment and explore a new lead wing development concept."
As of Wednesday afternoon, Arias said, there were no plans for Tyndall to evacuate any of its aircraft as Hurricane Zeta moved across the Gulf of Mexico.
"Our first priority is always people," Arias said, "but if there were a threat to the aircraft, we would be able to move them prior to any extreme weather event."
Tyndall was all but destroyed in 2018's Hurricane Michael, and is being rebuilt by the Air Force as a "base of the future."
Eglin AFB had no plans Wednesday to evacuate any aircraft in connection with Hurricane Zeta, according to Ilka Cole, spokeswoman for the 96th Test Wing, the base's host unit.
The base was, however, closed to all non-mission-essential personnel at 4 p.m. Wednesday.