Within hours after Hurricane Harvey came ashore near Rockport, Texas on Friday, August 25, the phone rang at CHI Aviation in Howell, Mich. Air Methods, the nation’s largest air ambulance provider, wanted to enlist one of CHI’s Sikorsky S-61Ns to move personnel, patients and medical supplies between Houston-area hospitals being deluged with up to 50 inches of rain.
“Once we got the call to go down there it was all hands on deck in the hangar to get the aircraft configured and loaded with spare parts and tools,” said Stu Edwards, CHI project manager. A support truck and trailer, driven by a company mechanic, began the trek to Texas. Another mechanic and the flight crew finished configuring the aircraft with sound-dampening blankets and 19 folding Martin-Baker passenger seats. The trio, led by PIC Mike Jones, launched at 6 a.m. Monday, August 28, for the 7.9-hour, two-stop flight to the staging base in New Braunfels, Texas. Edwards deployed separately from his home in Oklahoma.
Harvey triggered the largest coordinated national rotorcraft rescue response since Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans in 2005. That storm killed at least 1,245 and inflicted damages of $108 billion. While Harvey’s final toll remains unknown, estimates in mid-September spoke of 70 U.S. deaths and a reconstruction bill that could approach $200 billion. Shortly after Harvey made landfall in the U.S., federal, state and local agencies, National Guard and active military units from across the country began sending helicopters and personnel into the impact zone rescuing stranded civilians, delivering vital supplies and personnel and providing crucial air medical support. The tally included 37 U.S. Coast Guard helicopters, Sikorsky MH-60s and Airbus MH-65Ds, from units scattered from San Diego to Cape Cod, performing mostly hoist rescues and evacuations as the flood waters quickly rose to roof lines.
National Guard units from across the country contributed 69 helicopters at the mission’s peak: 35 Sikorsky UH-60s and two HH-60s, 18 Boeing CH-47 tandem-rotor Chinook heavy-lifters and 14 Airbus Lakota UH-72s. Active military units under the direction of Northcom contributed another 73 helicopters—mainly UH-60s but also specialized machines such as giant three-engine Navy MH-53Es that can carry up to 55 passengers. U.S. Customs and Border Protection contributed a dozen helicopters as well, some from its Air and Marine Operations unit. The rapid response of these units saved thousands of lives. The Coast Guard alone was credited with 10,000 saves in Harvey’s aftermath, many of them from helicopters.
“The training and equipment that the National Guard receives for our federal mission to fight the nation’s wars also make it possible to be very good, especially as we rapidly respond to states’ needs domestically. Especially as you look at this in terms of rotary-wing rescue and ground rescue,” said U.S. National Guard commander Maj. Gen. James C. Witham.
The Defense Department established incident support bases at Fort Hood, Joint Base San Antonio and Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth to support the effort. The Defense Logistics Agency provided 645,000 gallons of fuel. Some 6,300 active-duty military and 19,000 Guardsmen from 40 states were deployed to the impact area. The effort also drew foreign military support: 34 members of the Republic of Singapore Air Force flew sling loads of food and water from one of their CH-47s in coordination with the Texas National Guard. Singapore’s Air Force trains for large-scale emergency responses at the Grand Prairie Army Aviation Support Facility in Dallas.
Military helicopter SAR crews were guided in their responses by Air National Guard imagery analysts from the 101st Intelligence Squadron in Cape Cod, Mass., who were fed satellite and reconnaissance aircraft images. High overhead, an Air Force E-3 Sentry from Tinker AFB Oklahoma flew 16-hour sorties, acting as an airborne communications link and a real-time data coordination hub linking military air operations, the Houston Air Route Traffic Control Center and 80 SAR helicopters in theater. The E-3 tracked hospital status, helicopter and landing zone availability and survivor coordinates—information that enabled flight crews to prioritize their missions.
Military helicopters quickly moved in the storm’s aftermath to perform exigent rescues and later went on to fly more mundane but still vital missions, such as air-dropping hay bales to stranded livestock from the back of Ohio National Guard CH-47s near Beaumont, Texas.
Civil Operator Efforts
Civil helicopters, mostly medevac at first, also moved in. On August 24, Air Methods activated its emergency response plan in anticipation of Harvey’s impact. It deployed 40 flight nurses, paramedics, pilots and mechanics to Grand Prairie, Texas, along with several helicopters. It was ready to move in when the weather began to break on August 28, transporting ICU and NICU patients out of hospitals that had lost power and/or sewage service.
“One hospital had no water for days,” said Joe Rios, a flight nurse from Chatham, Ill. “We were able to assist, evacuating some of the critical patients who were on ventilators and medication drips. They needed care similar to what they received in the ICU. We were able to provide that and get them up to the Fort Worth-Dallas area,” he said. The company also enlisted 10 pilots and two Airbus AStars and one EC130 from its Sundance Helicopters air-tour division in Las Vegas, basing those aircraft in New Braunfels, Texas. Air Methods deployed 200 personnel and 20 aircraft adjacent to Houston in support of Harvey relief efforts.
OEMs also stepped up in Harvey’s aftermath. Bell Helicopter, based in Fort Worth, Texas, sent two 429 light twins and a 412 medium twin to assist in the recovery efforts, and in the days immediately after the storm, Bell and sister Textron companies raised $120,000 for Harvey relief. The helicopters delivered critical food, water and supplies. The 412 flew six sorties for a total of 11.4 hours delivering 7,300 pounds, while the 429s flew seven sorties for a total of 11.7 hours delivering 6,000 pounds.
“Our pilots were able to get to those who couldn’t be reached by vehicles or boats and were in desperate need of relief,” said Todd Bufkin of the Bell Helicopter Training Academy. Bufkin also noted, “Our employees are doing a great deal in Fort Worth, Amarillo and Lafayette to donate supplies and give to the Red Cross and we will continue to stand ready to support the Houston community.”
The airspace in and around Houston in the days after Harvey proved to be a challenging environment, according to CHI pilot Mike Jones. “The flying conditions when we first got down there were pretty miserable. Low patchy ceilings and visibility and raining like crazy the first day. But then it cleared.” However, some initial confusion about airspace management and the overall congestion still meant that heads were on swivel in the cockpit. “You had to have both heads out the window,” said CHI’s Edwards.
Getting a squawk code to enter the temporary flight restriction area (TFR) proved problematic at first. “Initially it [the TFR] was just a circle around Sugar Land but then overnight it expanded to cover the entire Houston double Class B airspace. And once you got in there it was packed full of helicopters,” said Jones. “Houston ATC had their hands full and did one heck of a job. But at one point for five or ten minutes the guy working my frequency came back and said they could no longer do separation. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that situation before. He said, ‘We’re just going to track you and you guys need to have your eyeballs outside.’ It got so busy on the radio. We’re trying to do CRM in the cockpit and the radios are constantly going. You’re trying to get a word in edgewise and it’s almost impossible. The radios were really jammed up.”
Other than the military traffic, most of the helicopters flying within the TFR were small medevac helicopters. CHI’s S-61 is equipped with Tcas, but that did little to tamp down the stress level.
CHI’s initial missions were critical inter-hospital transfers. Because of the helicopter’s size, up to three or four patients, their nurses and all the attendant gear could be handled on one hop. The patients “were in pretty rough shape,” said Edwards. Because of its size (rotor diameter 62 feet) the S-61N can’t use most hospital helipads, so parking lots adjacent to the hospitals had to be cleared and ambulances summoned in some cases to finish the last few hundreds of feet of the patient transfer.
While in Houston, CHI’s S-61 flew an average of five hours per day. Both Jones and Edwards point to a flight where they lifted in 14 relief doctors, nurses and technicians from Conroe, Texas, to a hospital in Lake City where the staff had been working and living for six straight days in Harvey’s wake. “There was a party going on when they showed up. They were extremely happy to see those people,” said Jones.
Meanwhile, back at CHI’s home office, the phone was ringing off the hook with requests from storm-ravaged oil companies, refineries and utilities for supplemental civil lift. So when Air Methods released the S-61 from duty on September 1, CHI had another gig lined up for it and its crew: supporting the area’s largest utility, Entergy, and redeploying to the submerged and blacked-out area to the east near Beaumont, Texas. The mission called for basing from Southland Airport in Sulphur, La., and flying into and around Beaumont, hubbing off of Jack Brooks Airport there. Jones remembers his arrival into Jack Brooks. “It was a complete zoo when we got there. ATC was just as chaotic. You were still talking to Houston Approach, and they had their hands full. Then they would hand you over to Beaumont Tower and it was just as congested there, sometimes launching ten aircraft at a time. The whole [main] ramp was full of mostly small EMS helicopters.” Jones said that the military had taken over the north side of the field, running in everything from Black Hawks to Chinooks to Super Stallions.
One of the first orders of business at Beaumont was to fly the Entergy CEO and a load of dignitaries on an aerial damage assessment flight, but after that the missions became more mundane; hauling transformer components in open wooden crates and ferrying Entergy technicians to needed locations in the area. The parts crates loaded easily through the S-61’s large cargo door. In many ways, helicopter support was even more critical in Beaumont than it had been in Houston because of severe flooding. “Their roads were completely cut off,” said Jones. CHI’s mission for Entergy ended on September 7. Jones and his crew flew back to Howell the next day.
Edwards said it was an experience he won’t soon forget. “I was just glad CHI was there. The number of people volunteering, including at the FBOs, was amazing. It was just overwhelming to see how much damage was done.”
On September 10, Hurricane Irma hit Florida and marched northward toward nearby states. Air Methods had already deployed its emergency response plan for the region and CHI had another S-61 ready to go, positioned in South Carolina.