Oregon ARES works with Airlift Crews in A Drill

Combine 2,850 pounds of donated food, 20 cargo flights by 17 general aviation pilots flying over 8,800 air miles, eight airfields, and 44 amateur radio operators, and one can have an effective full-scale exercise. On July 8, and 9, 2023, the Oregon Disaster Airlift Response Team (ODART), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, activated volunteer pilots from Oregon, Washington, and California to simulate what a response effort might be like when the next full-length megathrust rupture of the Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) off the west coast takes place.

The impact of that CSZ earthquake and tsunami incident will be severe, with widespread failures of electricity, cellular and landline phone systems, commercial radio, Internet services, and (yes, even) amateur radio repeaters. Remote coastal communities will be cut off from food and medical supplies. However, general aviation pilots can utilize small landing strips to deliver cargo of 150 to ~400 pounds per flight, and are expected to be a valuable resource for local and tribal emergency managers.

ODART planners understand the value that amateur radio communications bring to assist them with their disaster response mission. Amateur radio volunteers practice with the pilots’ group by transmitting airfield conditions, sea state (for amphibious aircraft pilots), current weather and fuel supplies on hand at airfields, relaying roadway and bridge conditions gathered by aircraft during overflights of impacted areas, and tracking each aircraft (arrival time, cargo quantity, departure time, destination, etc.).

The July 2023 exercise involved ARES, AuxComm, and ACS groups from 10 different counties across a 300-mile footprint, each standing up a Winlink station which, per the exercise scenario, could only connect to an RMS located east of the Cascade Mountain range.

We know that real-world events can affect exercises, and this event encountered three. Cargo flights between Walla Walla, Washington, and Aurora, Oregon, had to fly around smoke from the Tunnel 5 fire  burning in Skamania County, Washington. One ODART aircraft experienced avionics problems and returned to its home base at Hillsboro, Oregon, without cargo (or a working aviation radio in controlled airspace). Another ODART aircraft was enroute from Bend, Oregon, to La Grande, Oregon, when a Winlink message was received from Tyson Brooks, W7BL, who was staffing the radio station at the La Grande airport, notifying the ODART “Air Boss” of the closure of both runways due to the crash landing of a World War II vintage T6 aircraft. This information was quickly relayed to the amateur radio station at the Bend Airport, and the pilot was successfully recalled using aviation radio frequencies.

According to the “Air Boss” for the exercise, commercial pilot Jim Origliosso, KK7ILC, both the pilots and communications volunteers did an excellent job. The food delivered via the ODART cargo flights went to food banks close to the delivery airports. Food bank supplies are sparse this time of year, so the food bank directors were thrilled to receive the airlifted cargo.

Lessons learned in this exercise included the need for a better structure for VHF/UHF radio communications between the airfield flight line and the Winlink radio station, additional resiliency and testing of airport antenna options, establishing Winlink tactical call signs based on the unique FAA ID of the airfields, and the need for developing several custom Winlink forms.

In an exercise scheduled as part of the International ShakeOut Day on October 19, 2023, ODART will practice coordinated overflights of roadways and bridges in the impact areas to gather situational awareness of simulated damage. Amateur radio will again be used to relay these reports via Winlink to transportation officials.

Volunteer general aviation groups with missions similar to ODART exist in most areas of the country, so if your Emcomm group isn’t currently helping one with their communications, you may want to reach out.