A Year After WC-130 Tragedy, Puerto Rico Air Guard Unit Pivots to New Mission

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Victor Melendez marshals a Puerto Rico Air National Guard WC-130 Hercules aircraft on Muñiz Air National Guard Base, Carolina, Puerto Rico, April 30, 2016. (U.S. Air National Guard/Tech. Sgt. Efraín Sánchez)
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Victor Melendez marshals a Puerto Rico Air National Guard WC-130 Hercules aircraft on Muñiz Air National Guard Base, Carolina, Puerto Rico, April 30, 2016. (U.S. Air National Guard/Tech. Sgt. Efraín Sánchez)

The 156th Airlift Wing of Puerto Rico's Air National Guard has a new mission.

The unit, which formally transitioned to the 156th Wing on April 10, will now conduct contingency response and combat communications out of Muñiz Air National Guard Base, the Guard said in a news release last week.

The wing, which currently has more than 1,200 airmen, is projected to add another 18 as it begins operations to rapidly assess and establish communications in austere environments when called upon.

"The new contingency response and combat communications missions are strategically aligned and capitalize on the unique capabilities, experiences and professionalism of Puerto Rico's airmen," Lt. Gen. L. Scott Rice, director of the Air National Guard, said in the release. "The missions also provide Puerto Rico's territorial leadership tremendous resources for territorial emergency response."

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The mission change comes nearly one year after the catastrophic WC-130H crash that claimed the lives of nine members of the wing. Officials determined that the accident was largely due to pilot error. But the report noted that recurring issues, such as troubling engine and maintenance concerns documented in the aging aircraft, contributed to the mishap.

The plane, which had been in service for more than 50 years, was on its final journey to the "boneyard" at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, when it crashed May 2, 2018, into Georgia State Highway 21, roughly 1.5 miles northeast of the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, killing all onboard.

The Air Force is still in the process of decommissioning the WC-130s that belong to the wing, which are some of the oldest C-130s in the service, according to Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Randy Saldivar.

"The de-mil of the last two remaining aircraft, 65-0966 and 65-0963, is on schedule for completion by May 21," he told Military.com on Monday. "A determination was made that it was more cost effective to disassemble the aircraft versus restore them to flight status for flight to Davis-Monthan. All other assigned WC-130 aircraft have already been removed from the inventory and will not fly again."

The wing originally operated C-130Es before it accepted repurposed WC-130s for the weather reconnaissance mission to keep its airlift designation. The 156th had hosted six of the aircraft since 2012, Saldivar said.

In addition to adding communications positions, the wing will grow its existing security forces and civil engineering units.

The groups often deploy for hurricane response across Latin America and the Caribbean.

The latest transition comes as the Pentagon is working to boost the number of countries it partners with, in addition to holding more exercises and training for its service members in South America.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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