Puerto Rico Guard Mission Undecided After Hurricane Maria, Fatal Crash

Luis Munoz Marin International Airport near Muniz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico, in October, 2017. The airport, shared with Muniz ANGB, was severely damaged by Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm. Air Force photo by Lt. Col. Frederick Brooks.

The Air Force knew the Puerto Rico Air National Guard was struggling with its mission and it was working to fix the issue even before a WC-130H crashed in May 2018 killing all nine airmen on board, the deputy director of the Air National Guard told Air Force Magazine in an interview on Friday.

“That was a horrible tragedy, losing those airmen, and we’ll forever remember them, and their families, and the sacrifices they made,” said Maj. Gen. Marc Sasserville at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla.

An accident investigation board found a series of pilot and aircrew errors brought down the WC-130H—the oldest C-130 tail in the Air Force inventory—last year as it flew to the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., where it was to be retired. However, accident investigators also identified a host of systemic issues, including the fact the wing believed it was an afterthought in USAF planning; its aircraft were not combat-coded, so members did not feel like they were part of the Total Force; and there was no direct connection to a mission.

“The biggest issue for Puerto Rico was the mission,” Sasserville said. “We were aware, and we had been working on what Puerto Rico’s future mission was going to look like.”

At the time of the crash, Puerto Rico was still recovering from the Category 5 Hurricane Maria, which had killed thousands on the island and caused widespread destruction to Guard facilities. Sasserville said Air Force leadership and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico are committed to getting the Guard back on its feet, and though he said progress has been “steady,” he also acknowledged it’s been a challenge. “It’s slow, and we’re not giving up.”

The military construction projects in the works for Puerto Rico are now directly tied to the wing’s pending mission. Sasserville said he expects the Air Force to make a decision on what the Puerto Rico ANG’s future mission will be by this summer. In the meantime, there is an advise and assist team on the ground to help the Guard “regroup, regain readiness and lethality,” he said.

“In the long term, we remain engaged with the Secretary of the Air Force, who will make a mission decision on Puerto Rico’s future,” Sasserville said. “I know the leadership at the Guard Bureau, leadership in the Commonwealth, and in the Air Force are all looking at this very closely, and we’ll come to the best decision possible that enables the Puerto Rico [ANG] to move forward and have a mission that supports the National Defense Strategy.”