Pilots of news helicopters have seen more than their share of death and destruction, but Katrina’s aftermath even took members of that hard-bitten corps by surprise. Not the least surprising was the sheer number of helicopters in the skies over New Orleans. Ken Pyatt is president of SKY Helicopters, based at the Garland, Texas Heliport. His company is a Part 135 operator and helicopter flight school and also operates electronic news-gathreing helicopters and provides aerial photography services.
When The Dallas Morning News calls for a helicopter to take aerial photos, they are usually in a hurry–something has blown up, burned down, or fallen over. This Saturday afternoon call was a little different. "There’s a big storm brewing in the Gulf that’s heading for Louisiana or Mississippi. It’s two days from landfall. Can you fly to New Orleans after it passes to take some photos? We’ll probably send our guys down by car and you pick them up at the closest airport. It’s called Hurricane Katrina–2 hr. of photos is plenty.’"
Sunday I’m watching the hurricane’s progress on The Weather Channel and it’s certainly impressive. As a Category 5 hurricane, it pretty much fills up the entire Gulf with rotating clouds. But as it gets closer to New Orleans, it weakens to a Category 4. I’m thinking, "Well, it’s basically just raining hard. Maybe they’ll even cancel."
Monday Katrina hits landfall. Information is a little sketchy–the usual power outages and shots of the weather guys braving sideways rain. The Morning News confirms that I’ll go to Lafayette–100 mi. east of New Orleans–and pick up a photographer for The Morning News and one for the Associated Press for some shots.
I make Lafayette by nightfall. The air is smooth, the stars are shining. I meet my guys and get ready for tomorrow.
Lafayette wasn’t hit by Katrina, but nothing seems to work. Phones are out, cell phones don’t work. WSI at the airport is down. Well, we’ll launch and call Flight Service or Approach as we get closer and get any details we need. I’ve flown into New Orleans a few times and am fairly familiar with the layout and airspace. We fire off calls to Flight Service immediately after launching. No reply. Different channels, no answer. Approach control–silent. Tower at Louie Armstrong– nothing. The same for Lakefront. Eerie.
It’s sunup as we get to the city. Air-to-air radio traffic is active and the chatter is the same: guys comparing frequencies, trying to figure out what’s up. I’m wrestling with the logic of entering controlled airspace that doesn’t have controllers–is it really controlled airspace? I convince myself it’s not, but then circumnavigate New Orleans International’s Class B anyway. We head downtown. The photographers’ cameras sound like machine guns–click,click.click,click,click. I’m impressed with the damage, but my attention is really focused on the moving targets. Where did all these helicopters come from? White/orange Coast Guard, hard-to-spot dark green Army National Guard and heavy-lift guys right down in the dirt. Skirting around, lifting folks off rooftops. For the most part these helicopters are operating low, around 50-100 ft. agl. There are about two dozen helicopters flying over the city, maybe more–it’s a big area. We stay out of the way and fill the camera memory cards with stunning images. My sense is we are going to need to stay more than 2 hr.
We head to Baton Rouge airport, where communications are a little better. The pictures are sent to the Associated Press wire service and within minutes we get word we’ll be staying for awhile . We get hooked up with frequencies to talk to Omaha 44, an AWACS sent overhead to manage new temporary flight restrictions over the whole area. Washington issues us a "permanent" code to get in and out of the various TFRs. Over the next couple of weeks, we fly 6 hr. a day. I called my wife a few days into the assignment and she says there’s a big picture of damage in The Morning News. "How Big?," I ask.
"If you open the newspaper full wide, the picture goes from your left thumb to your right thumb." It’s a 14-column shot. The biggest there is.
Each day gets a little more routine. There are now more than 100 helicopters in the area. Operators have come from all over. I know a few, and make some new friends. Everybody has a job: some sling huge car-sized sandbags into levee breaches, others do rescue work, EMS, damage assessment and bring in supplies. It’s an alphabet soup of agencies and companies getting their jobs done by the only viable means–a helicopter. Suddenly I realize how lucky I am to be able to witness and help document this aerial ballet.