Service in Crisis: New Mexico Wing's COVID-19 Missions
In April 2020, the COVID-19 crisis – already declared a global pandemic and an emergency in the U.S. and the state – tightened its grip on New Mexico. Core members of a Wing Incident Management Team (IMT) began planning for what would become the longest-running mission since World War II. With subsequent approval for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding, a new mission became official on 15 April and was approved by the Air Force. The Wing's mobilization went into high gear.
The Wing supported the New Mexico Department of Health, coordinated through the New Mexico National Guard. The state's immediate priority was testing to track the spread of disease. In a geographically large state, this was complicated by the fact that COVID tests had to reach a laboratory quickly for processing in order to remain valid. CAP prepared to augment the National Guard's helicopters and airplanes with our aircraft for this task.
The first flight came on 24 April, carrying test samples from Las Cruces to Albuquerque. In the following weeks, tests were flown to Albuquerque from Farmington, Truth or Consequences, Carlsbad, Clovis, Lordsburg, and Ruidoso. The IMT, with members statewide, met daily via videoconferencing to plan and coordinate the flights. To distribute the work and maintain currency throughout the Wing, the IMT assigned sorties to aircraft and crews from around the state. In addition to the flights, ground teams transported test samples to and from airports.
In May, a meat-plant worker in southern New Mexico tested positive for the virus, and the Department of Health moved to test every employee immediately. On short notice, the Wing flew these test samples to Albuquerque. Because of the threat to the food supply, this operation gained widespread publicity for the Wing's efforts. Another short-notice task came at the end of October when the number of test samples outpaced the New Mexico laboratories' capacity. In three days, Wing aircrews flew 10,500 samples to a laboratory in Arizona.
All participants showed tremendous flexibility and resilience. With the summer monsoon season, weather became a significant factor in planning and in operations. On one day, weather prevented flights from three different cities from landing in Albuquerque. The aircrews diverted to alternate destinations, and the IMT quickly mobilized ground crews to meet them and get the tests delivered. Similar resilience met the challenge when a CAP exemption expired and FAA rules temporarily prevented pilots without a commercial certificate from flying the sorties.
With the opening of a new laboratory in Las Cruces and a gradual decline in demand for test transport, those tasks ended in December 2020. However, a new task was coming, as the first COVID-19 vaccines were approaching approval. The first vaccine to be approved, the Pfizer-BioNTech one, required supercooled storage that only existed in Albuquerque. CAP immediately planned to fly the vaccines to outlying cities in the short time frame in which they were effective after being removed from the supercooled storage.
The first vaccines arrived on Monday, 14 December, and multiple CAP aircraft headed out the following morning, delivering them to outlying cities. New Mexico Wing was the first wing in the nation to fly vaccines and would continue a high-intensity pace of distributing the precious cargo over the next several weeks, until the final sortie of the mission on 9 March 2021.
The volunteers of New Mexico Wing contributed more than 6.5 work-years to this ongoing effort. The CAP volunteers performed their duties with dedication and professionalism, which earned the respect of all the agencies with which they interacted, including kudos from the Air Force and a special plaque from the Defense Coordinating Officer for U.S. Army North. In a time of crisis, when the state and the nation needed help, Civil Air Patrol once again came through.
The preceding segment is derived from the memoir published by Lt. Col. David G. Finley, CAP Mission Public Information Officer Mission # 20-1-5024 Mission # 21-1-4140 and Southwest Region Historian.
NM Wing Use of Glider Flight Simulation
In late 2019, we discovered a summary paper titled “Simulator Training Doubles Solo Rates at the United States Air Force Academy,” and it refocused our interest in glider flight simulation. As the USAFA Soaring is the largest glider training operation in the world, with sessions that last three weeks with a maximum of 14 sorties per student.
The impetus for the use of simulators at the UASFA rose from a decision in 2012 to replace lower-performance TG-10s (Blanik L-23) with TG-16s (DG-1000). However, the higher-performance sailplane proved a challenge to master, and solo rates plummeted.
In 2018 USAFA purchased nine Mach .1 simulators (unit cost ≥ $3k), and the average course solo rates went from 43 percent in 2017 to 89 percent in 2018. Damage due to hard landings dropped from 10 to 2 per year. All solos were accomplished within the course maximum of 14 sorties (same resource/better result).
As a result of this revelation, in 2021, NM Wing (under the guidance of Stu Maxon) developed and fielded five similar simulators with legacy ground school materials. The total unit cost was about $800, along with non-optimal laptops borrowed from NM Wing HQ.
The results in three 2021 Glider Academies (KS, NM, WA) revealed no A/C damage and 4-5 fewer sorties to solo.
In 2022 NM Wing furnished and staffed five wing- and squadron-level Aerospace Education (AE) and recruiting events, again duplicating the USAFA success story. We upgraded to “T” rudder pedals and installed optimized computers. A simulator-based ground school with PowerPoint lessons was established, and we performed simulator-based ground school training in three 2022 glider flight academies (KS, NM, WA).
The results were again exceptional as we finished a day early. Solo rates went from 60 percent to 90 percent, with about 50 fewer sorties per academy. For a nominal capital investment, glider simulators will reduce annual operational costs, increase solo success rates, improve safety, and provide a new Aerospace Education/recruiting venue.
NM Counterdrug History
The Counterdrug (CD) program is operated in conjunction with Joint Task Force-North and promotes the ability of the Civil Air Patrol to support federal counterdrug operations along the international border between the United States and Mexico. The NM CAP program interacts with United States Customs and Border Protection agents, Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine personnel, Border Patrol officers, and other federal stakeholders.
The NM CAP operations include flight profiles for Civil Air Patrol aircraft to operate within the 25-mile-wide corridor north of the international border from Texas to Arizona. Bi-weekly telephonic meetings are conducted with stakeholders to deconflict Civil Air Patrol flights with other air operations along the border. The CDO manages and schedules counterdrug-qualified pilots and mission observers from throughout New Mexico to fly four-hour missions along the border twice each week when funding is available. Border Patrol Agents are also scheduled to fly with the New Mexico Wing Civil Air Patrol aircrews in order to establish direct communications and coordinate searches with Border Patrol ground units.
The NM CAP Wing has flown nearly 3,000 hours of counterdrug missions since 2016—which amounts to approximately 25 percent of all of the Wing’s total flight operations. Also, the New Mexico Wing has assisted in apprehending over 1,200 aliens who entered the United States illegally and seized over 1,000 pounds of controlled substances. The New Mexico Wing received the award for the best counterdrug program in the Southwest Region in 2018 and 2021.
Lieutenant Colonel Alan Fisher, New Mexico Wing Counterdrug Officer (CDO)
Survey of Military Training Routes
NM Wing has continued the procedure of Low-Level Surveys of Military Training Routes since it was initiated by Tony Sobol and is currently surveying IR112, IR113, IR109, IR320, VR100/125, SR213/214, SR212, IR107, VR108, VR114, and IR111 for Cannon AFB as well as IR128/180 AND IR126/266 for Dyess AFB. These surveys have been flown between February to July every year by CAP aircrews from multiple squadrons, including Albuquerque, Roswell, Moriarity, Taos, and Farmington.
There are currently plans in place to survey IR500 and IR501 using crews from Colorado Wing once the environmental impact statement is completed.