A USAF airman unveils the winning tail flash for 156th Airlift Wing, Muñiz Air National Guard Base, Carolina, Puerto Rico, during the WC-130 Tail Flash Unveiling Ceremony in Hangar 1, on March 6, 2016. Air National Guard photo by TSgt. Efrain Sanchez.
The Puerto Rico Air National Guard will transition away from its flying mission to contingency response and combat communications, the National Guard announced Thursday.
Under the change, the 156th Airlift Wing will become the 156th Wing and grow by 18 airmen, including four additional full-time positions.
“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,” said Lt. Gen. Scott Rice, director of the Air National Guard, in a release. “The missions also provide Puerto Rico’s territorial leadership tremendous resources for territorial emergency response.”
The 156th AW received its current designation in 1998, after previously flying F-16s as the 156th Fighter Wing. Until recently, the unit flew WC-130Hs, including some of the oldest C-130s in the Air Force.
Following the fatal May 2018 crash of a PR ANG WC-130H that was on its way to retirement at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., an Air Force investigation found systemic issues plaguing the unit. The Accident Investigation Board report highlighted a disregard of maintenance practices, a “good enough” mentality on maintenance, and an overall view that the PR ANG was disconnected from the rest of the Air Force because their aircraft were not combat-coded and were outdated, meaning there was no feeling that they were directly connected to a mission.
At the time of the crash, the Air National Guard was working to determine a new mission for Puerto Rico, said Maj. Gen. Marc Sasseville, the deputy director of the Air National Guard. It was also dealing with damage from Hurricane Maria and ongoing low morale.
The change to contingency response and combat communications means the 156th will be the first Air National Guard unit with this combination of missions, Rice said. Puerto Rico provides a “strategy location” to support both federal and territorial mission requests. Contingency response forces are used to deploying rapidly and establishing air mobility operations, a mission set that has been in high-demand in responding to natural disasters in the region. Combat communications provide voice and data to units both overseas and in local responses, according to the Guard.
“I am confident the airmen of Puerto Rico have the skills and the motivation required to continue their tradition of success in these new missions,” Rice said.
The unit is now beginning a 36-month conversion period as it makes the transition, according to the Guard.