OPA-LOCKA, Fla. — As Hurricane Ian slowly made its way toward Florida, Soldiers assigned to the 1-111th General Support Aviation Battalion (GSAB) prepared for landfall by training with members of Task Force 1 in Opa-locka, Florida, on Sept. 28, 2022.
The Florida National Guard is regularly activated during hurricane season to provide defense support of civilian authorities, known as DSCA. During DSCA missions, the 1-111th GSAB, headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, provides air medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) services and air movement operations.
Many Army Guard units can experience a significant difference between their combat and DSCA assignments. For example, an infantry unit’s focus may change from conventional warfare on a battlefield, to providing security in an area experiencing a widespread power failure after a natural disaster. However, the 1-111th GSAB’s role doesn’t change much from one scenario to the other.
“Our wartime and our DSCA missions are heavily related,” said Army Maj. Joshua Peek, battalion operations officer for the 1-111th GSAB. “We gain a lot of experience supporting DSCA missions that translates to our combat role. For our Soldiers piloting Blackhawk helicopters, conducting MEDEVAC operations in a search-and-rescue DSCA environment directly correlates to what they’d do overseas, which improves our crew-level proficiency.”
Peek said that air movement operations involving Chinook helicopters in combat-deployed environments are very similar to their work supporting search-and-rescue teams by delivering necessary supplies, equipment and relief personnel to areas affected by natural disasters.
“We’re trying to be proactive by preparing to maneuver behind the storm as it comes through Florida so we can provide assistance to people,” Peek said.
Ian represents Peek’s sixth or seventh hurricane activation — after so many, he couldn’t recall for sure — but hurricane season is also an opportunity for junior Florida Guard Soldiers to gain experience by applying their training to real missions.
“There’s a big sense of urgency when it comes to hurricane operations and preparing for something like Ian as a unit,” said Spec. Joshua Marshall, a Blackhawk helicopter repair/crew chief assigned to the 1-111th GSAB’s Company C. “We do an insane amount of training to make sure we’re ready to rescue Floridians if need be.”
Marshall said he has served as a crew chief for two years, but this is his first hurricane activation in that role.
“This definitely feels serious,” Marshall said. “Everybody is very focused because a real-world activation raises the stakes in ways that don’t happen on a typical drill weekend. When it comes time for the mission, it’s good to see everyone come together and get things done — it’s pretty awesome.”
GSAB Soldiers joined helicopter search-and-rescue teams from Florida Task Force 1, which resides under Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, to practice loading and unloading operations with Chinook helicopters.
Such operations don’t amount to simply throwing gear on a helicopter. They require that crew members devote attention to detail in properly securing equipment for safe transport. Depending on the type of aircraft, cargo may also need to be weighted and balanced to avoid center-of-gravity issues in flight that can endanger the crew, the aircraft and the mission.
Training on such skill sets not only prepares Florida Guard air crews for real-life missions, but when executed with civilian agencies, this training also helps improve interoperability.
“We were enjoying some significant collaboration pre-COVID, which was interrupted by the pandemic,” said Jeff Rouse, Florida Task Force 1 leader. “There’s been a reconstitution of those activities and I would expect they’ll only grow in the future. It’s a fairly seamless collaboration in terms of training.”
Rouse said that members of both agencies have a common language that helps them share experiences on different ways to complete the same objectives when working as part of a team.
“Both the Florida National Guard’s 1-111th GSAB and Task Force 1 bring their own unique strengths to a response effort like this,” Peek said. “It improves our capabilities by combining first responders with the National Guard in how we can respond to natural disasters.”