FLORIDA KEYS, FL (WVUE) - The P3 Orion is a former Navy sub hunter outfitted with an aerial radar and cameras that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses as its eye in the sky. Over the past few days, it has played an integral role in Irma relief acting as an airborne command center in southern Florida.
"We can see all the helicopters coming in and out. That's primarily why we're here today. We can see where all the radars from Miami center are down they've been knocked out, we can see those low-flying aircraft because those radar systems are no longer able to see this far south, so it helps us to see the big picture and make sure that no one's going to mix metal down here in low altitude," said Tracy Weddle, a pilot on the P3.
Weddle has spent nearly 15 years flying the plane, sometimes in the dark of night, sometimes in daylight, but the mission after hurricanes always hits home.
"I remember flying during some of these other storms in cities that are usually lit up, and it's just a big black void. Luckily this morning we were flying in before sun up and we could see the lights of Key West on and that just gives you some hope that it's starting to get back to normal," Weddle said.
The plane normally soars at about 21,000 feet, too high to assess damage, but during Wednesday's flight, the crew dropped down to 1,500 feet to get a look at the damage in the keys.
"A few days ago we made contact from the AMOC (Air Marine Operations Center) letting us know that they needed water in one location and they'll tell us they need water in this airport or this town or that someone needs rescue from the house and here are the coordinates. We'll pass those coordinates on to the helicopter and they'll do the rescue," said Andres Gonzales, who watches the radar on the plane.
Gonzales spends most of his time in the plane talking to other pilots, command centers, or ships, helping to coordinate relief efforts. During their mission, he watched helicopters launched from the USS Iwo Jima and USS Abraham Lincoln while communications systems on the ground were in disarray.
"We can see what they're trying to do. Most of these helicopters have water on board or have emergency equipment and they're just trying to help out and they're just fluttering out and seeing if they can find somebody or someone who needs help or some place to land, so in this case we can help out a little bit better than that," Gonzales said.
The crews, however, normally spend their time in the air sniffing out drug runners and nabbing billions of dollars of drugs before they reach the U.S. - all from thousands of feet in the air.
"We cover what's called the transit zone. So you have your source country where they're producing a lot of narcotics and we try and get it at that point after it leaves the source country and comes toward the US border," Weddle said.
"We look out there for smaller contacts, we know fishermen go out there and normally fish in small boats and pick up. They're not doing 20 knots. When we see someone doing 20 knots way out in the Pacific we pretty much know they're drug smugglers," Gonzales said.
While the main mission is drug interdiction, the crew has been in the sky during some of the country's worst moments, from flying right after the 9/11 attacks to coordinate relief in the air in the days after Katrina.
"We started controlling basically all of the Coast Guard helicopters people were seeing on TV where they were seeing helicopters picking up people from different locations, we were basically telling them where to go and we were getting contact on the ground saying that people needed help in this area, they would give us the coordinates, we would pass it along to the helicopters and let them pick them up," Gonzales said.
"We see the big picture and a lot of the stuff we would do is point out how this fire house is underwater, there's a fire at this latitude and longitude, there's a hospital that looks like it serviceable or could be used as an emergency landing point or a rallying point for survivors," Weddle said.
The crew also took flight right after the Deep Water Horizon blew.
"We knew that there was a lot of aircraft going out there and dropping disinfectants, we're trying to find out what spots were and basically we had more than 100 airplanes flying at the same time," Gonzales said.
"There was a lot of traffic going on out there, our whole goal is to make sure that no one gets in an accident because everyone's looking down, they're not looking up front, they're not seeing the other airplanes," Weddle said.
You may never see the plane, but if disaster strikes, there's a good chance they're flying above.
"That's why you joined, that's why you're doing what you're doing, whether it be participating in a rescue or working a case down in the transit zone that's why we do it," Weddle said.