Civil helicopters provide support to the Gulf Coast

 - October 23, 2006, 11:49 AM

The TV news might have focused on the contributions of military rotary-wing aircraft– notably hoist-fitted UH-60 Black Hawks from the National Guard and Jayhawks from the U.S. Coast Guard–in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but commercial helicopters also played an influential and in many cases heroic role in the unfolding drama. Whether activated by FEMA or a benevolent manufacturer, dozens of rotorcraft became involved in the first 24 hours after the disaster.

In particular, three manufacturers responded to the call for help: Fort Worth-based Bell; Grand Prairie, Texas-based American Eurocopter; and Sikorsky from West Palm Beach, Fla., and Stratford, Conn.

Medical Supplies and Rescue

Sikorsky pilot Phil Pacini talked to AIN after spending three days flying one of two S-76Bs in the thick of the rescue efforts, providing backup to local EMS operator Acadian Ambulance, of Lafayette. La., one of the principal players in the operation.

Acadian airlifted 700 hospital patients in the 36 hours before Katrina, then between 1,800 and 2,500 in the week following. Chairman Richard Zuschlag said that Acadian flew a Bell LongRanger L4, typically with 250 pounds of water and food items outbound, then a patient inbound.

The EMS operator flew at least 17 helicopters with assistance from Southeast Texas Air Ambulance, StatCare Air Ambulance, AirEvac of Mo., Air Logistics, and Petroleum Helicopters, and more help was on the way. A military C-130 was staged at the Louis Armstrong International Airport to meet Acadian helicopters and collect up to 80 patients per flight.

During the period, Pacini and his crew– pilot Vince Vannoorbeeck, crew chief Lee “Tage” Erickson and electrician Vinny Ditroia–flew for a total of almost 20 hours. “We were tasked by FEMA with supporting the Methodist Hospital in New Orleans with water and materials, and with evacuating people as required.”

The crew departed West Palm Beach at dawn on September 1, accompanied by Doug Boody, who was to bring Brainerd Fire Hawk’s S-70 into the area. They dropped him at the Brainerd facility in Leesburg, Fla., refueled in Ocala and Pensacola and headed to New Orleans.

Approaching the New Orleans TFR, Pacini contacted an orbiting AWACS, callsign Omaha 44, for a transponder code and, after orbiting at the edge for seven minutes, was cleared into the area.

“We arrived in New Orleans at noon. We refueled, off-loaded the equipment we had brought from West Palm and stored it in the FBO building. We left the food and water for other crews and contacted the Miami Children’s S-76C++ crew, which was set up for full pediatric transport.”

By this time, thunderstorms had entered the area. Everyone stayed on the ground, except an S-58 from St. Louis Helicopter, which made four or five more trips in to move evacuees. A major pickup point was at a cloverleaf junction, east of the airport on I-10. From there, it was a four-minute flight to the triage area at the D-concourse of the airport terminal building by the tower.

“When the weather started to clear we were among the first to ‘make a break’ from the north ramp. We went west, to Lafayette’s Acadian Ambulance Metro Ramp, to look for NCRI (National Catastrophe Restoration Inc.) supplies for Methodist Hospital. After taking some pharmaceutical supplies to Slidell, we pulled together as much water and supplies as we could talk people into giving us to take to Methodist.”

As time went by, the pilots realized it would soon be dark enough to justify wearing night vision goggles (NVGs). “We studied a map, using lat/longs a Bell 206 pilot had given us earlier in the day; and even an Avis street map left over from a visit to PHI. We heard that the area surrounding Methodist Hospital was totally underwater,” Pacini said.

Flying Night Approaches to the Hospital

The pilots donned their goggles and flew southwest to the old (western-most) causeway, which they had heard would lead directly to Read Boulevard, where the hospital was located.

“We turned off the strobes, retaining the searchlight, anti-collisions and position lights. There was a significant amount of traffic in town; I estimate that 85 percent of it was on goggles. When power is out, a city at night becomes a dark place and you must have NVG capability,” said Pacini.

Vannoorbeeck pinpointed the hospital. Another helicopter was working the facility, so the pair had time to devise an approach to the roof. Despite several small arms advisories, they orbited with the searchlight on; with so much traffic, they figured, it was more important that other helicopters see them.

“While we were flying this mission, a steady stream of helicopters was picking up refugees from the I-10 cloverleaf. Another stream was flying into and out of the Superdome. Still others were working Memorial and Tulane hospital roofs, and people were still being rescued from roof-tops–mostly by military, hoist-equipped helicopters,” said Pacini.

Methodist Hospital does not have a roof-top helipad and the staff had used blue paint to write SOS and a large X on the roof. The crew watched another helicopter to determine traffic direction and turn points, but they couldn’t figure out which side, east or west, was the active landing zone.

A young man fanned a flashlight across the landing zone in a sweeping motion. “On final, we observed the light and planned our approach to that side. Once on the roof, we held 35 percent torque to keep from sinking into the tarpaper. We offloaded the supplies that we had gathered for the remaining hospital staff and patients. Once empty, we loaded 10 people, mostly patients, for evacuation to triage at the international airport.”

Traffic into and out of New Orleans was inbound via I-10 to the northeast field boundary, then to closed Runway 24 to Taxiway Echo for triage or Taxiway Golf for fuel at Signature. Outbound traffic went back into town via the river. Some helicopters also came inbound directly to Runway 28. “There was no time for any radio call beyond a mandatory one-mile call. If you couldn’t get that in, you just jumped on the end of a line of cleared traffic and tower would say something like ‘And Hawk after the Dolphin, you’re cleared, too.’”

Triage was at Gate 24, manned by medical professionals, armed guards, volunteer people movers and aircraft marshalers. After landing at Taxiway Echo, the Sikorsky crew took its place in the line on the left or the line on the right. “You moved forward as helicopters in front of you discharged their passengers and did a vertical takeoff to rejoin the river or return to Signature for fuel.”

People were moved on baggage trolleys, escorted by a soldier carrying an M-16. The passengers went one way to medical attention and another way to a marshalling area for a bus ride out of the city. After dropping its passengers, the Sikorsky crew returned to Signature for fuel and loaded their gear into the helicopter.

The crew met up with Boody, who had been working the Tulane hospital and was going to park his Fire Hawk at the Signature ramp for the night. They returned to Lafayette and parked the helicopter on the Metro ramp and left part of their gear at the Signature FBO.

According to Pacini, “Acadian Air Ambulance put us up in rooms adjacent to the hangar. Cots, air mattresses, pillows, blankets were all provided. A shower was in the ops building about 200 yards away. Food was plentiful. They treated us very well.”

No More Evacuees

The next morning, the crew was assigned a callsign to facilitate clearance into the TFR through Omaha 44. “Supplies for Methodist Hospital arrived at the Metro ramp in a U-Haul truck. We loaded them and a medic from Acadian Air Ambulance and returned to New Orleans. The men in the U-Haul told us that, from now on, all pickups would be made at Gonzales Airport, about 30 miles west of New Orleans.

“The medic was to go to a relief station at the I-10 Chef Monteur exit, near the hospital in east New Orleans. We wanted to drop him off first to minimize weight and confusion on the roof. The coordinates were close, but not exactly right. We spotted a convoy of emergency vehicles on a high part of I-10 that was not submerged. We thought that this might be the relief station, but it turned out not to be.

“Randy Rowles of Bell Helicopter, flying a 407, was trying to get to the same place. The road was impassable beyond where we were, so we couldn’t establish the Chef Monteur station. Ray, the medic, stayed aboard and got off at triage at the international airport.

“We arrived at Methodist Hospital to find the other S-76 on the roof. While orbiting, Vinny observed several people waving their arms, while standing on a rooftop several blocks north of Methodist. We pointed this out to an approaching Puma. He immediately made a one-wheel landing on the roof and took them on board.”

Frequency 123.02 MHz was allocated to civil helicopters and 123.05 to the military. Interestingly, the military did not answer any calls on VHF unless they came from other military ships. The Sikorsky had good UHF but did not get a good frequency from Omaha 44. In fact, Pacini’s first contact with the orbiting Omaha 44 was on UHF, and they told him to go to VHF.

“We landed, dropped the NCRI supplies and took on 10 more people. One young female medical professional told Vinny of her fear that she might be left behind. We took the people to triage but orbited so long that we did not have enough fuel to get to Lafayette. We were not sure of the fuel status at Gonzales so we returned to the North Ramp.

“Later we learned that Gonzales did have fuel, so we fueled again and on-loaded more supplies. We also on-loaded two very large men–NCRI employees–to take them to the hospital. They told us that they were the reconstruction crew. We all felt strange taking perfectly healthy, albeit overweight, men to stay at that place,” Pacini said.

When the Sikorsky crew arrived on the roof for the third time, there were no more evacuees. They checked with the hospital staff and the NCRI personnel to confirm that there were no more supplies needed or evacuations planned. The welcoming committee atop the hospital was from another air ambulance unit and was awaiting company traffic to pull them off the roof.

The crew headed to the international airport to pick up their gear and flew on to Gonzales for fuel and to make sure that the NCRI supply people had nothing else to send into town. They left for Lafayette full of fuel.

A New Rescue Mission

“On arrival at Lafayette, I saw one of the Bell factory team 407s running up,” said Pacini. “I thought it was Randy Rowles but found out that he had suffered heat exhaustion earlier that day, and had gone to bed. The 407 was going in to fetch eight [Acadian medics from Chef Monteur. I asked if there was another ship, knowing that he could get only four or five of them. He said no. I checked with the other Sikorsky crew, who agreed on the mission. I went into ops and told Tony Cramer, the coordinator, that we would go in and pick up the rest of his medics. He liked that,” said Pacini.

Heading to Chef Monteur the crew heard some bad news: a Bell 206 pilot who had been working Memorial Hospital all day, and was sure that it had been totally evacuated, had seen three people on the roof in obvious distress on a fly-by.

The pilot asked Omaha 44 to put Memorial Hospital back on the list of priorities and get someone over there whenever possible. The Sikorsky crew attempted to contact Air Med 19 on 123.02 all the way into town. Omaha 44 put out an advisory to stay clear of the French Quarter because of small arms fire. When they got into the area they saw emergency vehicles, but they wanted to be sure they had found the Acadian medics.

“We saw a westbound Bell 407 about a mile west of the vehicles, silhouetted against the sunset. I broke radio etiquette, and came up on Omaha 44 to hail the 407. It was Air Med 19, and he confirmed our location. He had not heard our calls on 123.02 or 119.9, because he was not monitoring those frequencies. Vince made the approach and landing. We picked up four medics. There were people visible in the building west of our landing zone, but they were not signaling to be rescued. The medics asked us to orbit to make sure that the convoy got under way after our takeoff.

“After this orbit, we checked in with Omaha 44 to see if anybody had gotten the three on the roof at Memorial. Nobody had. We asked for directions since none of the medics in the cabin was familiar with it. Omaha 44 gave us the coordinates. We had had spotty luck with the coordinate system all day. It was approaching sunset, and we needed someone who knew the area,” Pacini explained.

The crew found the Bell 206 on the frequency and the pilot led the Sikorsky into Memorial. It was dark and the small-arms warnings started to ring and the crew couldn’t get the three occupants to return to the roof.

“We returned to Gonzales for fuel. We eventually landed at Lafayette and parked the aircraft. We repositioned it at the request of the duty pilot, since they were expecting a DC-9 full of gurneys at 1:30 a.m. They were also expecting 50 Chinooks to drop patients at the FBO later that night. John Agor from Associated Aircraft Group called and said we were being pulled off the mission.”

The Sikorsky crew had almost started the morning briefing when the DC-9 arrived, full of coffin-sized boxes of gurneys. The crew attended the briefing and gave its S-76-specific callsign to Miami Children’s, who were late to the briefing, and did not plan to leave (only one S-76 callsign had been applied for).

Bell Crews Fight the Dark

Like Sikorsky, Bell also sent a team to the Gulf Coast to aid in the rescue efforts. After the storm, the Texas OEM already had a 430 in the area, surveying storm damage to a Textron Systems facility, when FEMA called asking for support. In addition Bell recommended FEMA call golfer Greg Norman, who has lent his twin-turbine 430 to hurricane relief efforts before. Norman assigned his pilot, Gary Hogan, to serve FEMA with 1,000-pound loads in the hours following Katrina’s onslaught.

Bell CFI Marty Wright arranged the Texas company’s response, and pilots Scott Baxter (a senior instructor at Bell’s training academy), Fernando Castellani, David Webb, Kevin Brandt and Randy Rowles led the activity. They were supported by David Mills, Joe Nuncio and John Griffith.

Wright started plans to send five 407s, a 206L4 and 12 people to start work by 1800 on August 31. They, like the Sikorsky crew, would support Acadian Ambulance from the EMS operator’s base at Lafayette.

Baxter told AIN, “Our mission was to take internal loads of food, water, medical supplies and personnel from Lafayette out to a number of official and unofficial emergency sites around the city. We didn’t count them but there must have been more than 30.

“They needed blood, oxygen, all the normal stuff plus–on one occasion–more specialized material, such as extremely perishable stem cells. Some of the sites were hospitals, some triage centers set up on freeways. We went into New Orleans International Airport several times.”

The Bell crew, beginning with the goggle-rated pilots, flew missions of about an hour. Flights stopped around 3 a.m. because the situation over the city center was extremely hazardous; the unfamiliar city was completely blacked out and most of the aircraft flying were military aircraft, so the crew couldn’t talk to them.

Said Baxter, “It was the busiest and potentially the most dangerous airspace I had flown through in 20 years of flying. At one point I calculated there were 80 helicopters within a seven-mile radius. We had an AWACS flying overhead to clear us into the area, but it wasn’t able to provide any service within it; it was every man for himself.”

None of the towers were lit but the aircrew could see 30 or 40 flashlights shining from rooftops, signaling helicopters to come in and pick them up. At any given time, 15 or 20 UH-60s, Dolphins or Hueys were doing just that. It was nonstop activity, all night long. The civilians had a common VHF frequency but of course the military was on UHF, so they needed to keep their eyes open. The 407s consistently flew with two up front, either two pilots or one plus a crew chief.

Baxter explained, “It was difficult to see how we were helping in such a huge effort but, every time we landed, a doctor or a nurse would shake our hands or give us a hug. You could see it n their faces that they were glad to get the supplies. On many occasions, until that moment, they had nothing.”

Assessing the Damage

The crews took a rest and started again at about 8 a.m. on subsequent nights they would get more sleep. The NVG pilots stayed local in case they were needed, while the rest stayed at an Acadian training center about 12 miles away.

Daylight allowed the crews to see the full extent of the damage, and it appeared to many of them to be of almost Biblical proportions. A pilot from Evergreen Helicopters, which sent a Bell 212 to aid rescues from levees, transport water, food and fuel and ferry crews to and from Lafayette Regional and Baton Rouge Airports, said it’s the worst thing he’s ever seen, and he’s gotten physically ill. Another pilot said it’s 100 times worse than what we see on tv.

They saw some aircraft from the Gulf offshore operators, but these were occupied mostly in surveying damage to their customers’ rigs and platforms. Airlog dedicated a 407 each day, and PHI Air Medical provided five more.

Howard Ragsdale said that the company’s entire oil and gas fleet had been mobilized to redeploy crews for repair of oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The I-10 triage center was looking after about 6,000 people, and I had to walk among them, trying to find the medics who we were supposed to pull out of there. Seeing all those sick and elderly people needing help got to me a little; the medical staff were working hard but they were just overwhelmed,” said Baxter.

The Bell crew worked in stages in the following week, but demand has tapered off since the military has arrived in force.

Flying Medical Missions

American Eurocopter also contributed to the post-Katrina relief effort. Within hours of the hurricane’s passage, the company mobilized an EC 135 and EC 120 with pilots and ground crew to take medical supplies and emergency medical technicians into the ravaged region.

Once there, the crews airlifted critical care and dialysis patients from the levee along I-10 and transported infants requiring medical attention from New Orleans to medical facilities in outlying areas.

During a series of rotations on September 1, the EC 120 flown by Bruce Webb and Bob Hernandez recovered 66 people from the roof of Tulane University in downtown New Orleans. The difficulty of these flights was compounded by weather conditions that deteriorated to less than a half-mile of visibility.

As the number of military helicopters in New Orleans increased, the company switched its focus to the Mississippi coastline, where air support was needed to distribute food and water to the vast number of people isolated in the region.

Later, two more EC 120s and an AS 350B3–provided by three American Eurocopter corporate customers who volunteered to assist in the growing humanitarian effort–joined the fleet.

Finally, Helinet Aviation Services of Van Nuys, Calif., arrived with 10 crewmembers and two satellite trucks before Katrina hit and on August 31 became the only operator authorized to pool news footage on behalf of the major broadcast networks, to limit electronic news gathering traffic. Helinet came equipped with a Cineflex camera–a gyro-stabilized unit able to record at 200 mph. Though its primary focus was news, the Helinet crew also used the 1,120-mm lens to isolate rescue targets for the U.S. Coast Guard and National Guard.

Civilian helicopters made a significant contribution to the relief effort in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Bell’s Baxter probably put it best. “Now that I think about it, what was achieved in New Orleans would not have been possible without the helicopter. For all of us, it was a life-changing experience and I truly think that this was the commercial helicopter’s finest.5 hour,” he said.

Additional reporting by Roger A. Mola