TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Panama’s Darién Gap is a 10,000 square-mile remote region of mountains, swamps and rainforests, known for attracting explorers and adventurers alike. In July 2019, 11 air advisors from the 571st Mobility Support Advisory Squadron descended upon the Gap as part of a mobile training team with personnel from the National Air and Naval Service, or SENAN, at Nicanor Air Base, Panama.
They assess, train, advise and assist U.S. Southern Command lines of effort of strengthening partnerships and countering threats from transnational criminal organizations.
Capability focus areas for this mission included airfield management, supply management, aircraft maintenance, fuels operations, weather and airfield radar systems.
Nicanor AB is adjacent to the Pan-American Highway, a known drug trafficking route, and the jungle border between Colombia and Panama. Standing between the smugglers and the United States is the National Border Service, also known as SENAFRONT. Similar to the U.S. border patrol, but operating in a very different environment, SENAFRONT spends much of its time in the jungles of Panama performing various counter-narcotic operations.
The MSAS team partnered with SENAN forces at a forward operating location, which also happens to be a vital resupply station for SENAFRONT. Given the criticality of the location and its rapidly changing weather conditions, it is paramount for accurate weather information to be readily available. Tech. Sgt. Darlene Byers, air advisor for the Radar, Airfield and Weather Systems, assisted SENAN personnel with the repair, maintenance and installation of their Automated Weather Observing System. She quickly identified several problems with system maintenance and storage.
“Good meteorological data around the airfield enables aircrews to make solid decisions regarding their flight paths and fuel loads,” said Byers. “In turn, this translates to mission effectiveness as troop movements and logistical resupply sorties extend the reach of Panama’s ability to confront threats and provide needed services.”
As an instructor, Byers provided critical training at the height of Panama’s rainy season.
“In this class, we have been learning about the different weather sensors associated with the new equipment currently being installed at Nicanor AB. This equipment will be the first-ever weather system here,” she said. “The capability is critical to the safety and effectiveness of operations because of how important this location is to the counter-narcotic and border patrol mission.”
As with most things, the system was not established without a few hiccups. In fact, it took several days of troubleshooting before the system was ready for use. Byers and her class had to setup the system multiple times, which is designed to be rapidly transportable if necessary, and conducted extensive functional testing. As her class set up and tore down the system the students were able to gain a full appreciation of the individual system components, their unique function, and the best methods for assembling them.
The students appeared to be proud and enthusiastic about being a part of this learning experience and were eager to learn more about the weather system.
“A weather system for our operations in the Darien Province could help us provide accurate weather conditions, forecasts, and alerts to our troops conducting their missions from here,” said Cpl. Victor Perez, a SENAN service member and MSAS student. “Above all, this capability will help save lives and respond where we are needed.”
Maj. Rodolfo Orozco, 571st MSAS mission commander, was impressed by the hard work of the air advisor team and SENAN personnel.
“Throughout the four-week training engagement, working with SENAN has enhanced their capability to maintain regional security through increased proficiency in mobility support operations,” Orozco said. “We are fortunate to have had this opportunity to work alongside our Panamanian partners. The training and partnerships developed here will help us both capitalize on future opportunities and address security challenges together.”