RC-26 ‘eye in the sky’ rapidly deploys with Hurricane Dolly relief efforts

U.S. Army photo - Texas Military Forces used RC-26 aircraft such as this in reconnaissance operations after Hurricane Dolly made landfall on the Gulf Coast.

By Sgt. Maj. Bob Dashman

Texas Military Forces public affairs

CAMP MABRY, Austin — In the early hours of July 23, Hurricane Dolly came ashore along the South Texas coast, bringing with it 100-mph winds and heavy rainfall. As the sun rose over the Rio Grande Valley, no one knew how much damage the winds and rain had caused, or would cause, as the storm worked its way inland.

Parts of South Texas received up to 11 inches of rain. Accurate real-time video of the affected area was crucial to help first responders position themselves save as many lives as possible.

The RC-26 aircraft was the immediate solution to the problem. For more than 14 years, it has provided aerial photography and video in support of counterdrug (CD) activities. Its exceptional ability to send real time, high resolution streaming video to ground incident commanders and first responders made it a perfect fit for the situation.

Currently, there are only three aircraft nationwide; the closest one to Texas is operated by the Mississippi National Guard but is available as a resource to other states in the region.

“I called Maj. Gen. William ‘Bill’ Freeman, the Adjutant General of Mississippi, and requested that the aircraft be diverted to Texas for an immediate-response, 72-hour-type mission to help with the life-threatening situation,” said Lt. Gen. Charles G. Rodriguez, Adjutant General of Texas. “General Freeman immediately approved my request.” Within hours the aircraft was on its way to Texas.

This was not the first time that an RC-26 was used to assist in helping emergency personnel respond to natural disasters. Within the last 12 months the system was used during the California wildfires, the recent Midwest flooding, and during pre-landfall preparations for Hurricane Dean. In 2005 it also flew over New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“We learned during Katrina that the system needed improvement,” said Col. Russell Malesky, Texas Air National Guard director of staff, who flew the RC-26 for 17 years. “During Katrina the aircraft recorded video, but responders could not watch it until after the aircraft landed. We knew we needed a better system.”

In the following year the system was updated to provide a live video feed; responders on the ground could not only watch the video but could also ask the aircraft to provide coverage of a specific location.

“We tested the system in anticipation of Hurricane Dean in 2007,” said Malesky, “and demonstrated it could be in operation immediately after strong hurricane winds dissipated to deliver live video.”

For Hurricane Dolly, the aircraft flew from Tennessee (where it was on assignment) to San Antonio, refueled, and then flew to the Rio Grande Valley, a total trip of about 1,000 miles. Its mission was to assess how real the flooding threat was and search for people who may have been stranded by flood waters. If the flooding had been more severe, the aircraft would have helped locate people on rooftops so that search and rescue teams, such as Texas Task Force 1, could recover them.

Within hours of leaving Tennessee, the aircraft was flying over the valley to provide detailed information about how widespread the flooding was.

During its second day of transmitting live imagery, the RC-26 confirmed that a levee was overflowing at a small lake. While the threat of this overflow was modest, it provided valuable information to local officials directing shelter and restoration activities. Later that day, it captured on film two people in a stranded vehicle, who were then rescued by a Texas Army National Guard UH-60.

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