What happens when a key asset goes missing?

His question stopped the conversation: “Where is my bag?” It was a mix of his tone and the tangible sense of urgency within the question that the ground crew immediately knew what bag he was speaking of. As if it were choreographed, flashlights clicked on and the team began to spread out in search of this bag.

What happens when you are a pilot and you lose your bag that contains your wallet, pilot’s license, flight plans, cash, and other important documentation? You’re paralyzed. This was the scenario we faced in late September 2017 during our response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

To understand how this could happen, you have to understand the situation at the Million Air FBO in San Juan.

Passengers ready to board Million Air flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

Upon exiting the King Air 350, the despair was palpable. Typically, when you arrive at a FBO terminal, the tarmac side of the terminal is clear of people except for the ground crew. However, when we arrived at the Million Air FBO in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the tarmac was very crowded. Commercial flights were not operating at this time, so the only option for getting on or off the island was through private charter.

The terminal did not have power, so the electronic locks on the terminal doors were not working. But the power loss also meant that the doors were kept cracked to facilitate air flow inside the building to help keep the facility from becoming too hot. To accommodate such a crowded facility, the hangar was converted into a temporary waiting room.

Most people show up to an FBO (fixed-base operator) because they have arranged a charter flight. On this day, and the many days that followed, a good percentage of those present were waiting to see if anyone had an extra seat on their charter. As the desire to leave the storm-ridden island increased, coupled with the anxiety of not really knowing if there was an aircraft available, the distressed citizens of Puerto Rico stood as close to the tarmac as possible to observe the activity – and just wait.

The Million Air pilot had just returned from a long day in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, where the team was managing fueling operations at the former Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. Upon arrival, there was a flurry of activity due to a number of aircraft loading up and preparing for evening departures, filled with Puerto Ricans departing the island, seeking solace in Florida until the conditions improved.

It only took the team a few minutes to search the entire facility for the team to conclude that the bag was gone. While they were looking, I opened my computer to pull up a manager’s view of our web-based GuardianAngel Platform.

GuardianAngel Platform provides live tracking of assets

Maintaining the live tracking of personnel, vehicle and assets is a critical part of any mission. For this scenario, realizing that the cellular infrastructure in Puerto Rico was effectively inoperable, we deployed our satellite-enabled beacons that are integrated into the GuardianAngel Platform to serve as the sensor feed to enable tracking and real-time monitoring in Puerto Rico. With all key assets paired with a beacon and a few to spare, we placed a beacon in the pilot’s bag.

After opening my computer and connecting to the satellite-enabled WiFi, I was able to confirm that the bag was indeed gone. The GuardianAngel Platform was marking the last known location of the bag near to where we were standing and there was no longer a tracking signal. Knowing this, we processed the likely scenarios.

From the worst case, that someone had taken the bag and disabled the tracking device, to the best case, someone picked the bag up by mistake, loaded it onto a plane and had taken off. This felt like the most likely scenario.

With any kind of satellite service, from phones to TV to beacons, a clear line of sight to the sky is imperative. Had someone mistakenly placed the bag inside of the cargo hold of a plane, the signal would eventually reconnect and reveal its location.

Like the many Puerto Ricans continuing to hope for an available flight, we had to do the same: wait.

Early the next morning, I checked the GuardianAngel Platform, and the satellite-enabled beacon was reporting. Its first report since Puerto Rico was at Ft. Lauderdale Executive Airport. Our best-case scenario had been confirmed. Now we still had to figure out who had taken the bag and why.

Following the pings, or locational reports from the beacon, we were able to follow the track to its new location, to a residence in Hialeah, Florida, in Miami-Dade County.

Asset tracking capability with GuardianAngel solved potential mission-ending nightmare

Given the concern over the contents of the bag, we alerted law enforcement in Miami-Dade County, shared with them the information and the breadcrumb trail (or track history) and requested their support to recover the bag.

A few hours later, we received a call that the bag had been secured by law enforcement. According to their report, another pilot made an honest mistake and unknowingly grabbed the wrong bag and placed it in the cargo hold of his aircraft.

We were able to obtain a release of the bag and coordinate its return on the next supply flight down to Puerto Rico.

TigerSwan tracks assets during mission to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria

Situational Awareness provided by GuardianAngel saves the day

Thanks to the GuardianAngel Platform, and its real-time tracking capabilities, we were able to recover a very critical asset for one of our team members.

This was a successful coordination of an emergency response during the coordination of a much larger emergency response.

Million Air exemplified professionalism throughout Puerto Rico crisis

During the overall relief effort, it was amazing to watch the ground crew at Million Air work around the extraordinary circumstances. On a typical day at an FBO, the busiest schedule might include six to seven flights a day. During our time in the Million Air San Juan FBO, the team was managing upwards of 40 flights a day. The conditions remained safe at all times, but instead of showing frustration, they showed grace and delivered the “Million Air Experience” to passengers and those hoping to be passengers the same.

Million Air plane in San Juan, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

When deploying to an island for any situation, but particularly in an emergency response scenario, the most important piece of the plan to ensure a rapid response is a strong aviation partner. There are a variety of ways you can go about this, but at TigerSwan, we are fortunate to have a strategic relationship with Million Air, which is the premier FBO network, comprised of 1,000 employees and more than 800 aircraft throughout the US, Canada and the Caribbean. We are thankful for our relationship with Million Air and the incredible service and support provided by Roger Woolsey, CEO; John Birdi, VP for International Operations; and their entire team.