O’Brien was stationed in Nashville with the 105th Airlift Sqdn. of the 118th Airlift Wing of the Tennessee Air National Guard at the time Katrina hit New Orleans. He spent a good portion of his time in New Orleans working among the many helicopters ferrying storm and flood victims to the military triage center at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. The San Antonio, Texas native and Air Force Academy graduate spent 256 days in 2003 deployed to the Middle East for both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Now stationed at Little Rock AFB, Ark. he deployed to the Middle East again for four months in January.
On Sept. 1, 2005 my mission was to evacuate the sick and injured from Hurricane Katrina on my C-130 from the New Orleans airport to Houston and other cities. What I saw that morning really made my heart swell with pride. From every direction, in 15-45 sec. intervals, helicopter after helicopter continued to land right next to us. It was a mix of Army Black Hawks, Coast Guard helicopters as well as Marine and other aircraft. They were joined by what must have been 15 civilian helicopters from hospitals all around the Southeast. This was not normal operations. These pilots were carefully landing and taxing in very tight areas. They came in fully loaded with sick personnel, many right from the rooftops. One New Orleans airport fireman took on the duty of aircraft marshal, and marshalled in choppers left and right.
The helos would unload and then take right back off. It was not uncommon for a helicopter to be on the ground less than 2-3 min. and then blast back off. We were basically parked in the triage area. These helicopters were immediately met by ground personnel who helped the people off the helos! If they couldn’t walk, they put them on a stretcher or just carried them. What makes it so extraordinary is when I realize that these ground personnel were just the airport workers–airline employees, cart drivers, fireman, and the staff of all the emergency teams. They were not necessarily trained for the jobs they were undertaking. They just stepped up to the plate and did it. It was amazing.
The tower and ground controllers were coordinating airplanes and helicopters like they probably had never imagined in their most terrible nightmares, and were doing a very good job of it. There were literally so many helicopters coming in and out of the triage area that I do not understand how the tower guy could see through them all to control the planes once they landed. The little baggage trailers and tugs that you normally see zipping around the airport were being used to move survivors out to waiting aircraft. They can best be described as mini-ambulances. The terminals at the airport were triage and staging areas. The airport vehicles that are usually operated by airport managers and security were leading airplanes and helicopters to newly created parking spaces.
Then a huge thunderstorm hit to make matters even worse. Thunder, lightning, and driving rain pounded the airport and surrounding area for over 90 min. The helicopter pilots and crews never stopped. Everyone was so determined and working with such purpose. I literally watched this one helicopter bring people in and then leave again for another load four times in the torrential rain storm. This pace was not uncommon.
Another thing that exemplified the unselfishness of the rescuers was this one old and worn-out, red-and-white helicopter. It looked like something that does heavy lifting for construction up on mountains. Basically, it did not look like one that was designed to carry people and conduct search and rescue. From all I can tell, it was just a privately owned helicopter that the two pilots decided they were going to make work for this. I still remember the pilot in the left seat. I could just see the determination and purpose on his face as he brought that big helo in run after run after run.
Don’t misinterpret what I am describing. The military guys were doing this, too, but I did not expect this from some private company or individual. It just was absolutely incredible. If this was just some regular mission or training flight, you can bet your kid’s Super Play Station that they would not have been flying. It would have been easier to floss a shark’s teeth than to have gotten these guys to stop flying.