Article Display

Year in review: Alamo Wing adapts, continues executing mission despite COVID-19

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Kristian Carter
  • 433rd Airlift Wing

In 2020, the 433rd Airlift Wing trained 255 C-5M Super Galaxy aircrew members, flew 84 operational airlift missions, 527 local training missions, supported COVID-19 relief efforts in New York, deployed 205 Airmen in support of ongoing contingency operations, developed new processes for continued operations in a pandemic, welcomed aircraft from other units evacuating to avoid damage from storms and fires, and remembered the BRAVO-12 aircrew.

The year started like many others. The wing held the annual awards banquet and participated in the exercise Patriot Palm in Hawaii in January, followed by the 22nd Annual Stars and Stripes Air Show in Laredo, Texas, in February, and the Spurs’ Military Appreciation Night in March. However, change came shortly after that as the coronavirus case numbers started multiplying in the United States.

COVID-19 Response

Following the coronavirus spike, the wing pivoted, mobilizing 31 medical personnel for short-notice deployments to assist with COVID-19 treatment.

Air Force Reserve Command tasked units across America to provide medical personnel.

An example of the professionalism and readiness of the Reserve, the 433rd Airlift Wing was tasked at 8 p.m. on Friday, Apr 3. By 10 a.m. Sunday, the first group was boarding a military aircraft to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, to support the fight against COVID-19 in New York City. A second group left 10 days later.

A third group, consisting of aeromedical evacuation aircrew, was deployed to the COVID-19 aeromedical evacuation hub at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, to support the military airlift of COVID-19 patients. Some of these members forward deployed to Germany to support transporting COVID-19 patients out of Southwest Asia.

To assist the City of San Antonio and Bexar County, 15 Reserve Citizen Airmen volunteered to work as COVID-19 contact tracers or case investigators at the Bexar County COVID-19 Operations Center in the AT&T Center in San Antonio. In this capacity, contact tracers use clear protocols to notify, interview and advise close contacts to patients with confirmed or probable COVID-19. After that initial contact, they would launch an investigation assisting the City of San Antonio and Bexar County Metropolitan Public Health District in tracking cases and contact tracing.

Home station Continuing Operations

The wing couldn’t and wouldn’t stop executing its missions. The pandemic created many challenges, which prompted wing members to evaluate alternative methods to accomplish tasks.

One example was to bring Tech. Sgt. Jessica Travis, 433rd Aerospace Medicine Squadron healthcare administrator, on orders to function as the wing public health representative. When she is not on orders, Travis works for the City of San Antonio as a communicable disease specialist.

In this role, Travis provides public health guidance and fields questions from wing members and commanders about the restriction of movement, contract tracing, and many other COVID-related topics.

Travis cited three critical components of the wing’s success in continuing operations during the pandemic. These were adopting and employing mitigation techniques, excellent self-reporting when ill, and unit commanders’ engagement in supporting their troops.

“The wing has done an awesome job of implementing mitigation measures,” said Travis. “Anything requiring close contact, people in the wing have done a great job of physical distancing, ensuring appropriate mask wear, and most importantly, staying home when feeling sick.”

The wing also ensured the continued operation of the C-5M formal training unit. This organization is responsible for training C-5M aircrew: pilots, flight engineers, and loadmasters. The schoolhouse averages about 70-75 students at any given time, graduating approximately 250 students annually.

The school, which accepts pipeline and retraining active-duty and Reserve U.S. Air Force students reporting from locations worldwide, manages the formal training and lodging, welfare, logistics, and other student support functions.

According to Lt. Col. Brandi “BB” King, 733rd Training Squadron director of operations, one of the challenges associated with students reporting from other locations is the restriction of movement quarantine period after arrival. The schoolhouse now uses this time to start incoming students reading and completing Web-based training modules to prepare for class.

While many of the curriculum’s components are hands-on, the 733rd TRS implemented some tools that can be used remotely by creating training videos and using existing commercial Web-based collaboration platforms and apps to continue communication and engagement with students learning outside of the classroom.

“We instituted a check-in mechanism via an app so the students could constantly be in communication with us,” said King. “We had to get creative with how to communicate with the students on a mass scale.”

King said a unique challenge for this schoolhouse is that students are not organized into large classes by week or month, but instead, students who arrive frequently are now placed in small groups of two to four students.

The 733rd TRS reworked the student reporting instructions, the student handbook, and some of the course curriculum to prepare arriving students and better support the modified operations, King said.

As 2020 continued, the wing was already tasked to deploy Reserve Citizen Airmen to Southwest Asia to support ongoing operations. The pandemic complicated the deployment, but the wing adapted to overcoming the obstacle, and still sent the Airmen to complete their missions.

Resilience and Reform

In the spring, when there were still many unknowns about how to continue operations, wing leadership rescheduled the April and May unit training assembly weekends to the Thursday and Friday before the June and July assembly weekends to create two “Super UTAs.”

Postponing the two UTAs allowed the wing to develop plans enabling units to train and maintain readiness, limit exposure, and lower the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Starting with the June UTA, many units adjusted operations to reduce the number of people drilling in-person. Many organizations had virtual training sessions using online collaboration platforms.

Some events, such as changes of command, were still performed in-person with modifications to accommodate social distancing. Another adjustment was the elimination of the in-person audience. The ceremonies were broadcast on social media and other Web-based platforms.

After the initial spike, the wing adopted new processes to continue training events. In November, the 68th Airlift Squadron, 433rd Contingency Response Flight, and U.S. Army North’s Task Force 51 conducted training on air cargo transportation processes. In December, the 74th Aerial Port Squadron completed helicopter sling load training with active-duty Air Force and Texas Army National Guard personnel.

Missed Events

The wing historically participated in many community, and internal events. Due to delays and cancellations, the wing could not participate in the Fiesta Flambeau Parade, Wing Family Day, the Joint Base San Antonio Airshow, Honorary Commander Induction Ceremony, and many tours and community outreach opportunities.

Moving Forward

The year 2020 offered many challenges, which provided opportunities for individuals and organizations to grow. The Alamo Wing is looking forward to 2021.