Commercial, Public Service, Regulatory

Editor’s Notebook

By James T. McKenna | October 1, 2005

Emergency Medical Service, Fire, Police

Helicopter Heroism

I’ll spare you the diatribe about helicopters in emergency response, which seems to have become a nearly semi-annual recurrence for my Editor’s Notebooks. Back in August 2004, I wrote "it seems hard to believe that political leaders, emergency managers and the general public have not universally recognized the critical need to have helicopters available in times of crisis." Then, in February, I expressed the hope that the critical role of rotorcraft in the response to the Dec. 26, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami "demonstrated to those unfamiliar with helicopters the truly unique capabilities rotorcraft bring to emergency response and disaster relief."

Now Hurricane Katrina has forced emergency-agency leaders in the United States–the world’s most helicopter-populous nation–to confront their ignorance and neglect of rotary-wing aircraft as vital, unique tools. For days after New Orleans was flooded, hundreds–maybe thousands–of people were stranded on the roofs of homes and commercial buildings throughout the city. In rural coastal communities in Louisiana and Mississippi, thousands more languished for days, their food and water supplies dwindling in part because federal disaster officials didn’t even know they were there. Again and again, the United States and the world saw in non-stop TV coverage of Katrina’s wake that the only relief for most of those victims came in the form of a helicopter hovering overhead.

Police and fire vehicles couldn’t reach them; streets were flooded and bridges washed out. Small boats were of little use; they couldn’t survey large areas for victims and could only pull a few to safety at a time. Fixed-wing aircraft couldn’t help much; runways in the region–at New Orleans International Airport, Keesler AFB, Miss. and other airfields–were closed by floodwaters, debris or storm damage. Most of the immediate help would have to come by vertical lift. And come it did, from hundreds of helicopters sent into the havoc by individual pilot/owners, by manufacturers, commercial operators and flight schools, and by the U.S. Coast Guard and military. These aircraft and their crews saved thousands of people while federal, state and local bureaucrats and politicians argued, essentially, over what form needed to be filled out before specific relief could be provided.

People who fly and operate helicopters know the record of the aircraft’s role in Katrina relief. They know the unique value of rotorcraft to such operations. So to recount those points further here is to preach to the choir. It remains for uninitiated to learn these things. This is one reason why I penned an opinion piece that the newspaper USA Today was kind enough to publish Sept. 11, 2005–four years after the terrorist attacks that should have convinced all Americans of the need to integrate all available helicopters in disaster-response plans. (You can find that piece HERE)

It remains a challenge for all of us in this industry to help the uninitiated see that light.

Another task that lies before you, Rotor & Wing readers, is to tell us which helicopter crews that fly such missions as those that saved Katrina victims are deserving of the next Helicopter Heroism Award.

Many of you have been anxious for this call, I know. It seems late in coming; given our past schedules for the award, we would already be reviewing nominations at this point in the year. We’d originally intended to convene our next conference, including the dinner at which the Helicopter Heroism Award is presented, next month in San Diego. But it was clear after our most recent conferences, in January and November of 2004, that we needed to refine the purpose and the content of the annual event.

We’d taken to calling the event the EMERGENCY RESPONSE Conference based on our belief that rotorcraft would be the fulcrum for improving the integration and coordination of the response to any major emergency, natural or manmade. Katrina and last year’s Boxing Day validated that belief. The emergency response community, however, was not yet ready for the discussions we sought to foster with the conference (as Katrina also, sadly, has demonstrated).

We are now working to develop a conference that meets the practical requirements and interests of the helicopter emergency-response community. Our objective is to convene this event in the third quarter of next year. As always, we welcome and encourage your suggestions for an event that suits your needs and interests. As always, a highlight of it will be the presentation of the Helicopter Heroism Award. Eligibility for the award will include missions flown between Sept. 16, 2004 (cutoff for the most recent award was Sept. 15, 2004) and March 1, 2006. If you know of a deserving crew, contact me by email at jmckenna@accessintel.com, fax (301-354-1809) or phone (301-354-1839).

All of us at R&W look forward to your nominations, as well as to working with you toward the day when disasters are followed only by stories of tragedies averted through the effective use of rotorcraft in emergency response.

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