Rain showers were the only sign we’d had of tropical storm Earl, brewing in the Gulf of Mexico in early September 1998. Now the weathermen were telling us the storm had grown stronger and was heading for the Florida panhandle.
The radio was saying the storm would pass very close to Tyndall Air Force Base, where the 80-plus F-15s of the 325th Fighter Wing were parked. But we’d just been through a storm watch two weeks ago with Hurricane Bonnie, which had veered northeast at the last minute, and our sense of panic over an impending storm had been considerably dulled. However, in the squadron operations building, on the grease board that ordinarily listed the day’s flying schedule, there was now a terse notice: “Hurricane meeting 1000.” Our squadron operations officer came scurrying down the hall telling all pilots to go home and take care of their houses and families. When we returned for the 1000 meeting, we were to have our bags packed and be ready to “hurevac.”
Hurricane evacuations became a high priority after Hurricane Andrew devastated Homestead Air Force Base—and much of Dade County—in 1992. The purpose of a hurevac is to fly all of the base’s aircraft out of harm’s way. Most bases do not have enough hangar space to protect all the air wing’s aircraft. The only option is to take them where the storm isn’t.
Pilots are torn between the excitement of deploying at a moment’s notice and concern for the family they’ll leave behind. Most families have hurevac plans of their own. When the jets leave, the family members load up the car and drive inland a hundred miles or so. These plans usually suffer the same fate as the Air Force plans to evacuate. Disbelief is rampant until the storm’s effects begin to be felt. By then it’s a toss-up as to whether it would be safer to stay put or risk driving through the heart of the storm.
This was the case with Hurricane Earl, which was originally slated to make landfall near New Orleans. At the 1000 meeting, the operations officer told us tropical storm Earl was indeed heading our way. The wing commander would watch its movement for another hour and then decide if we would hurevac.
The operations officer began briefing us on our hurevac plan. All three squadrons of 22 aircraft each would deploy to various Air Force bases. One squadron would go to Wright-Patterson in Ohio. Another would head for Randolph in San Antonio, Texas. Our squadron was to go to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. A squadron of F-15s from Royal Air Force Base Lakenheath in the United Kingdom, in town to practice shooting live missiles, would evacuate to Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, the first stop on their long trek home.
The plan was to take off in four-ship elements with 15-minute spacing to prevent clogging up the air traffic control system. As each aircraft got airborne, it would lock its radar on the aircraft ahead of it. By separating the takeoffs by 20 seconds, we would end up with two miles between aircraft. We could then simply follow the jet ahead of us until we broke out on top of the hurricane—somewhere around 30,000 feet, we hoped. While this is something that we do whenever there is bad weather on departure, as the flight lead of one of the four-ship cells, I spent a lot of time covering contingencies—no doubt the hurricane would make even routine tasks much more challenging. I wanted everyone to be flexible and keep thinking ahead, making sure we didn’t do anything dumb, dangerous, or different.
As we arrived back at the operations desk, Earl had just been upgraded to a hurricane and was now projected to make landfall right over Tyndall. At 1100, the word came down: “Launch the fleet.”
Maintenance had somehow gotten the word that we were probably going to put most of the aircraft into hangars and ride out the storm. Now they had to prepare the jets to fly, hang external fuel tanks, and gas them, all in 30-mph winds and driving rain.
We anxiously awaited a go from maintenance while we watched the weather deteriorate. Eventually, one four-ship element was ready. A half-hour later, another four-ship was ready. After an hour and a half, our four jets were ready. We got a last-minute weather update from the operations desk and went out to the van taking us to the jets. This would be our last few minutes of calm.