MIDDLE RIVER, Md. - With more than three million people spread across 3,500 square miles and more than half of it dominated by mountainous terrain, Puerto Rico presents a challenge to spot victims in peril, but Lt. Col. John Henderson and his fellow pilots with the Maryland Civil Air Patrol are up to the task.
"We were just down in Texas a couple of weeks ago where one of our air crews found a group of individuals hunkered down along the river where they weren't seen before, so they were able to assist with the rescue resources to get to them," said Henderson.
The primary mission of the four-member crew is to fly over vast expanses of land taking detailed pictures where damage to roads, bridges and power lines may make it impossible to see from the ground, but they also may represent the best and last hope for hurricane victims cut off from civilization.
"They are down there with the expectation they'll be conducting air reconnaissance looking for damage, doing assessment operations, assisting with the recovery efforts. However, they are a search and rescue air crew so if they find something that has not been reported, if they find somebody in need of assistance, then they will transition from an aerial photography mission to a search and rescue mission," said Henderson.
The teams are made up of retired commercial pilots, veterans and other volunteers which will rotate every ten days and they give freely of their time and service.
"We look at it as if that was us out there, we would want somebody to come and look for us," said Henderson, "It was about 24 hours from the time that they were called until the time they were airborne, and that's a lot to tell your family, 'I'm going to Puerto Rico in very primitive conditions in a disaster environment and I'll see you in 10 days."
This is the first time the Maryland Civil Air Patrol has ever been deployed outside the continental United States, but we're told Hurricanes Harvey and Irma so stretched resources in Texas and Florida, that no crews were left in the southeast part of the country to fly these missions in Puerto Rico.