Kevin Wright reports on a recent disaster relief exercise to test the California National Guard

The powerful MX- 15 imaging sensor carried by the LUH-72 Lakota is ideal for disaster and battlefield applications.


An annual event, Exercise Vigilant Guard tests the capabilities of National Guard units, mainly in various homeland security and civil emergency scenarios across the United States each year. Two large earthquakes formed the setting for Vigilant Guard 17-1 which took place across California and Nevada in late 2016.

California, with its vulnerability to earthquakes and large wildfires, devotes considerable resources to mitigate the worst effects of potential natural disasters. Over 14 months in the planning, Vigilant Guard 17-1 involved around 3,000 people. It drew participation from the California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii Army and Air Force National Guards. Also taking part were the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region IX, Los Angeles County Fire Department, and a wide range of local organizations such as County Sheriff and Police Departments across a number of locations.

Disaster Scenario

In the simulated scenario staged for Vigilant Guard 17-1, a major 6.7 magnitude earthquake struck Nevada on November 12 between Lake Meade and Las Vegas. Less than 48 hours later a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck along the San Andreas Fault with its epicentre at San Bernardino, California. Eight counties were heavily affected with fatalities and damage to major infrastructure (airports, mass transit, bridges, ports and roads) as well as utilities (water, potable water, wastewater, electrical power, communications and natural gas). The damage was compounded by fires that ignited because of downed wires and ruptured gas lines.

Aircraft and helicopters are vital in helping to deal with the level of devastation generated by large earthquakes. Rapid mobilisation is therefore very important. Key assets conducting emergency tasks in Vigilant Guard 17-1 were helicopters from the California Army National Guard (CA ARNG). The Headquarters of the US Army’s 40th Division, responsible for California and much of the Western United States, is located at Los Alamitos, a large Joint Forces Training Base (JFTB) within the South West Los Angeles metropolitan area. Although the division’s aviation component, the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade (40th CAB) is headquartered in Fresno, Los Alamitos was designated as the exercise headquarters for JTF-40 and the main operations base for Army National Guard aviation units taking part. Supporting the exercise, across the state, were more than 500 members of the California National Guard mainly from helicopter units of the 140th Aviation Regiment; numerous ground units; California Air National Guard’s 129th Rescue Wing from Moffett Field and the 146th Airlift Wing from Channel Islands Air National Guard Base. California has a large National Guard component with approximately 4,500 fulltime and 21,000 part-time personnel in state, military and Guard Bureau positions.

Mutual Support

Another significant contributor to the exercise were 175 Guardsmen from Hawaii’s Air and Army National Guard, temporarily deployed to California. The personnel were assigned to Hawaii National Guard’s CERF-P (Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear highyield explosive Enhanced Response Force Package).

CERF-P team commander, Major William Flynn outlined the unit: “The CERF-P is a team composed of Army and Air National Guardsmen who respond to disasters which exceed the capacity of local agencies in terms of search and rescue, mass casualty decontamination, medical triage, fatality search and recovery, and communications.” Their participation in Vigilant Guard 17-1 was assured because Arizona, California, Hawaii and Nevada all form part of FEMAs Region IX, so mutual assistance is a necessity, despite the large geographical distances involved. Hawaii Air National Guard’s, 154th Medical Group, Detachment 1, together with their California Air Guard counterparts and civil emergency responders formed the on-scene medical response element. In a real situation, once an official request for assistance is made, Hawaii’s CERF-P is capable of deploying within a relatively short time.

Damage Assessment

One urgent task following a natural disaster, especially an earthquake, is to gain a picture of the affected area and the extent of damage sustained. Fulfilling this role for the exercise was A Company, 3rd Battalion, 140th Aviation Regiment, which deployed two LUH-72A Lakota helicopters from Stockton Metropolitan Airport to JFTB Los Alamitos.

A Stockton-based California Army National Guard CH-47F from the 1-126 Aviation Regiment, on the flight line at Los Alamitos.

The Lakota’s were used for this task because they are fitted with L3 Wescam’s MX-15 multi-spectral imaging sensor, which according to pilots flying the missions is extremely flexible and well suited for use in disaster relief, as well as combat and counter drug operations.

As a security and support company, the unit is familiar with the intelligence collection role. AIR International flew on the first damage assessment flight of Vigilant Guard 17-1. Shortly after first-light, on the first day of the exercise, a UH-72 Lakota, radio call sign ‘Shadow 11’ got airborne with its crew of four (pilot, co-pilot and two crew chiefs) and a reporter. The flight followed a pre-briefed route input into the helicopters mission system prior to departure.

Operating between 3,000 and 5,000ft (900 and 1,500m) the pilot initially headed out to the coast at Long Beach, searching for potential damage to the port handling facilities. Working gradually northwards up the coast, pausing for a few minutes at various points along the route. Sensor operator, Sgt Eric Powers, using the MX-15 to evaluate the extent of damage to Los Angeles International Airport and major highway intersections in the city. Sgt Powers was constantly using his hand controller to slew the MX-15 sensor on to key infrastructure sites to conduct a visual survey, as the pilot hovered in position.

As ‘Shadow 11’ headed north and out toward the coast again it overflew Channel Islands Air National Guard Station and Naval Air Station Point Mugu, a key exercise operating location (the two facilities share the same airfield). A C-17A Globemaster and a KC-135R Stratotanker from Hickam were parked on the extensive aprons, having arrived with specialist decontamination equipment and medical staff from Joint Base Pearl Harbour-Hickam. Numerous C-130s were also on the apron, deployed as part of the rescue effort. Image definition of each aircraft seen through the MX-15 was very high and showed considerable detail even during the overflight.

1 Del Valle is a major regional disaster and emergency training centre. During Exercise Vigilant Guard, the facility was used to simulate road and rail accident scenes, collapsed buildings and tunnel scenarios for rescue training.

A few miles to the east, the pilot circled the south eastern perimeter of Camarillo Regional Airport, close to an exercise rescue and disaster training area colocated there.

During ‘Shadow 11’s’ entire flight, a live feed from the MX-15 was transmitted to a small, trailer-based, mobile control unit, part of the 95th Civil Support Team, the unit located, for exercise purposes, on the edge of Camarillo airfield. Sgt Powers was in constant contact with them, re-tasking the sensor and zooming in to capture detailed imagery in response to specific requests from the control.

Airfields like Channel Islands Air National Guard Station, Camarillo and many others, would be key entry points into California for external civil and military relief efforts, during the exercise and in the event of a real disaster, so establishing their condition and any significant damage is an early priority. Following a brief refuelling stop at Camarillo, after nearly two-and-a-half hours in the air, ‘Shadow 11’ headed back towards Los Alamitos, via central Los Angles and Hollywood, once again checking for damage to infrastructure over the gargantuan metropolitan sprawl.

2 The edge of the disused El Toro airfield was equipped as a mass food distribution point for up to 20,000 people per day, partially supplied by CH-47F Chinooks.
3 A HH-60G Pave Hawk winches a casualty aboard at the Del Valle Regional Training Centre.
Brandon Honig/California Army National Guard

Heavy Lift

CH-47F Chinooks assigned to B Heavy Helicopter Company ‘Delta Schooners’, 1st Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment also based at Stockton Metropolitan Airport, also deployed to Los Alamitos for the exercise. B Company deployed with tented accommodation and equipment carried on board their Chinooks which was used to build the JTF-40 Headquarters, set up alongside the operations building at Los Alamitos.

The unit received 12 new CH-47F Chinooks in February 2015, and in addition to regular operations, has been utilised for firefighting during California’s near-endless summer to help extinguish the terrible forest fires seen all too often around the state in recent years.

The CH-47F’s ability to carry large internal and externally slung loads, medical teams or rescue personnel provided a massive boost to any rescue, relief and recovery operations and would be heavily tasked in any real emergency.

In addition to flying heavy lift support during the exercise, the Delta Schooners provided transportation for visiting state and military officials.

AIR International flew with California Army National Guard pilots Captain Aaron Mellor, Captain Brady Hlebain and their crew.

Departing Los Alamitos for a two-hour visual reconnaissance flight of the main exercise area. Heading south, leaving Los Angles, the giant Chinook circled over the former Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro. Adjoining the base is Great Park, Irvine, where a Commodities Point of Distribution (C-POD) was established for the exercise. C-POD sites provide large scale distribution of food, water, and other commodities for up to 20,000 people in a single day.

A C-POD is a combined response between the military and local Community Emergency Response Teams. On one exercise day, in a huge open area, volunteers, acted as members of the public driving through to pickup food and water supplies. Each car received two boxes of MREs (meals ready to eat), enough to feed four people for three days.

Leaving El Toro and Irvine, the Chinook flew North and tracked out to the Del Valle Regional Training Centre, near Castaic. This is a recently modernised 160-acre major emergency training facility owned by the Los Angeles County Fire Department. It was another key exercise location. Slowly hovering around the site for some time, the crew looked for potential landing sites in the mountainous terrain. The pilot flew on to circle the nearby Camarillo Regional Airport and then out toward the coast. Now flying at low level, to stay under LAX approach and clear of other air traffic, Capt Mellor followed the coast overflying popular beaches and surfing areas on the way back to Los Alamitos with the reconnaissance flight complete.

Some of California Army National Guard’s other aviation units also took part in Vigilant Guard including the UH-60L Blackhawkequipped A Company and UH-60A-equipped B Company from 1st Battalion, 140th Aviation Regiment, which provided additional exercise support. Usually tasked with the air assault role, both companies are resident at Los Alamitos. At the time of Vigilant Guard 17-1, some of its helicopters and crews had recently returned from 40th CAB-led operations at Camp Buehring in Kuwait.

Special Ops, Rescue and Casualty Evacuation

Based as Moffett Field south of San Francisco, the 129th Rescue Wing reports to Air Force Special Operations Command when activated for combat duty.

During a civil disaster the wing would fly rescue and evacuation tasks. Some of the 129th Rescue Squadron’s five HH-60G Pave Hawk combat search and rescue helicopters and four of the 130th Rescue Squadron’s MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft together with their highly trained rescue and medical crews participated in the latter stages of Vigilant Guard.

On the fourth day of the exercise, at the Del Valle training centre, one troop described the scene as being “like a tour of Universal Studios”. Destroyed buildings, crashed vehicles, collapsed walls, mannequin used as fatalities and hired extras, complete with simulated injuries and fake blood, were in place to test the various rescue and medical teams in as realistic a situation as could be created. Exercise directing staff also simulated a train crash on the site requiring casualty decontamination and treatment. Many of the people had suffered multiple injuries, some with simulated chemical skin irritation wounds, burns, fractures, neck wounds and facial lacerations.

HH-60Gs winched out some of the more serious casualties, using litters, and flew them to nearby Channel Islands Air National Guard Station. Offloaded from the helicopters, casualties were carefully loaded aboard two waiting C-130s, including a 130th Rescue Squadron MC-130P for a flight to Sky Harbour International Airport at Phoenix, in Arizona for treatment. On arrival they were met by the resident 161st Medical Group personnel (a component of the KC-135- equipped 161st Air Refuelling Wing) who used their decontamination training and triage procedures before treating the patients.

As Lt Col Darcy Swaim, from the 161st Air Refueling Wing said: “One good thing about exercises like these is that the simulated injuries are exactly the type of injuries we see in a combat zone.” At a similar FEMA training facility in Sherman Oaks, near Los Angeles, soldiers from the 270th Military Police Company and the 184th Infantry Regiment secured a landing site, from where HH-60G’s evacuated casualties.

As one of the largest disaster preparation exercises across California and Nevada for some time, many military personnel had an opportunity to work alongside civilian counterparts from the police, fire and civil emergency agencies, some for the first time. Lieutenant Eric Neubauer, with the 579th Engineer Battalion, summed up the exercise by saying: “Really, the bottom line is that we build relationships with civilian agencies and get an understanding of how they work. They, in turn, have an understanding of how we work, so when an actual incident does come up, we are all better prepared to respond efficiently.”

4 Sgt Powers uses the hand controller to position the Lakota’s MX-15 imaging sensor looking for serious quake damage.
5 California Army National Guard troops transport a casualty role player through a decontamination shower cleaning unit during Vigilant Guard.
TSgt Charles Vaughn/California Air National Guard