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How Helicopters Fought Nature’s Perils in 2017

By S.L. Fuller | December 26, 2017
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While helicopters are there to bring people to nature’s beautiful views in hard-to-reach places, they are also there to rescue people trapped by nature in hard-to-reach-places. This year had more than its fair share of high profile, high-damage natural disasters — some that helicopters are still working to bring relief to the pandemonium left in their wakes. These are the highlights, which can be found in R&WI's January 2018 issue.

Consecutive Hurricanes

Three hurricanes swept across the southwest U.S. and the Caribbean, one after another. It seemed as though as soon as squadrons were flying to Houston, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey devastated the city, more were gearing up to fly to Florida as Hurricane Irma threatened to travel from the Caribbean up its west coast. Hurricane Maria ripped through again the Caribbean and Puerto Rico, not too long after. From August until now, personnel from the National Guard, active duty military, first responders, utility workers and others have been responding to the call for help in these damaged areas as the ultimate life-saving tools do the same.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Air and Marine Operations (AMO) was on the scene for Harvey, Irma and Maria. The unit and other agencies were in south Texas Aug. 30, bringing relief in the wake of Harvey. Sikorsky UH-60 aircrews were conducting search and rescue missions while Bell Hueys were performing emergency flights for people and critical assets, like blood. And several weeks later, the unit was still conducting relief efforts. Aircrews were flying across Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands Oct. 26 with UH-60s, supporting FEMA in transporting supplies and emergency personnel.

Agents with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations, Black Hawk crew distribute much-needed supplies to residents of Puerto Rico as they conduct post Hurricane Maria humanitarian operations September 27, 2017. U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Rob Brisley

Agents with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations, Sikorsky Black Hawk crew distribute much-needed supplies to residents of Puerto Rico as they conduct post Hurricane Maria humanitarian operations September 27, 2017. Photo courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Hurricane Harvey

With so many aircraft flying to Houston, adding to the aircraft that routinely fly in its airspace, having well-managed infrastructure was key after Hurricane Harvey. Digital landing zone databases proved to be important tools. LZControl, which provides a digital database with information about helispots all over the world, had a fitting solution. Via the free mobile app, information could be changed and shared in real-time. When heliports are being restricted or closed to the general public and temporary landing zones are being created, which is what was happening during the massive relief response, real-time data is crucial. Helicopter Association International (HAI) also offered its emergency response database to aid in the hurricane relief efforts. Instead of landing zones, this database provided a list of helicopter companies that able to provide additional support upon request.

CHI Aviation sent a Sikorsky S-61 to Texas, as well as a crew. Air Evac Lifeteam deployed 14 aircraft and crews after a request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide critical care transport. The U.S. Coast Guard and National Guard provided aid from multiple states. Virginia sent seven National Guard helicopters to Texas. South Carolina deployed its Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Teams. Reports said Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, was designated a FEMA Incident Support Base and recently hosted guardsmen from New York. Not to mention the many, many others who were on the scene.

Hurricane Irma

Some helicopters are meant to fly into the storm. Others have duties that require them to stay out of the storm. Alabama’s Fort Rucker has some of those aircraft, and needed to keep them undamaged from the threat of Hurricane Irma so they could fly as soon as the storm passed. Keeping its fleet on the ramp was not an option, so the decision was made Sept. 6 about what to do with the aircraft: A portion of the fleet would be evacuated. Then the next day, after Fort Rucker analyzed the storm again, even more aircraft were evacuated. Fort Rucker ended up putting 2/3 of its fleet in the hangar, which was done by the Aviation Center Logistics Command. The rest were flown to Tennessee, Mississippi and Northern Alabama.

There was also a strategy for which aircraft were evacuated, and which aircraft were put in the hangar. The goal was to resume training operations as soon as possible. The greatest volume of flights at Fort Rucker occur on smaller aircraft, like the Bell Helicopter TH-67 Creek and Eurocopter UH-72 Lakota. The larger, more advanced aircraft, like the Boeing AH-64 Apache and CH-47 Chinook, are flown later in training. Some Apaches and some Chinooks were evacuated during the storm, and many of the smaller aircraft were put in the hangar. By doing so, Fort Rucker was able to avoid folding the larger aircraft, allowing the mission to resume quickly. By Sept. 12, the evacuated aircraft had started to return. After Hurricane Irma passed, Fort Rucker’s fleet was 100% intact. Fort Rucker was training Sept. 13.

Hurricane Maria

The last hurricane in the demolition trio was Hurricane Maria. Thousands of people responded to the complete devastation, as the U.S. territory lost electricity and the ability to supply, for the most part, its own basic necessities. One of the many units on the scene was the Pennsylvania National Guard, which sent two Black Hawks and personnel. Eighteen soldiers were sent to facilitate timely employment of aviation resources while in Puerto Rico. Pennsylvania had guard members in the U.S. Virgin islands, Texas and Florida to assist in relief efforts from all three hurricanes. While more than 20 Pennsylvania guard members were in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, a 20-member aviation crew and two Boeing CH-47s had recently returned from operations in Puerto Rico.

CHP4

Photo courtesy of California Highway Patrol

California Wildfires

Mother Nature also breathes fire, particularly in California. Various news reports claimed that 2017 brought one of the state’s worst wildfire seasons on record. Partly responsible for the hundreds of thousands of acres burned was a massive wildfire outbreak in northern California in October.During that time, all eyes were on the California Highway Patrol (CHP) Air Operations Program’s Golden Gate Division Air Operations. Personnel were hard at work, collaborating with other agencies, evacuating residents, performing rescue missions and more. By the end of October, the CHP air division said it had rescued 46 people within the fire areas of Sonoma and Napa counties since the fires had started.

Six wildfires were ripping across southern California in December. CNN reported that the affected area is currently larger than the combined size of New York City and Boston.  Working alongside California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) are various U.S. military units and other agencies, diligently dropping water and assisting with evacuating tens of thousands of residents.

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