HAI honors Katrina responders

 - September 29, 2006, 5:48 AM

In an unusual tribute for an unprecedented rescue mission, HAI has chosen to bestow the 2005 Igor I. Sikorsky Award for Humanitarian Service to all the companies, organizations and individuals who took part in the monumental rescue and relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The honor is given annually to the person or people who best demonstrate the value of civil rotorcraft to society by saving lives, protecting property and aiding those in distress.

Immediately following the August 29 storm that hit New Orleans and the coastal areas of Mississippi and Alabama, Coast Guard helicopters were dispatched to begin airlifting victims out of toxic floodwaters and from rooftops. Civilian operators, including many HAI members, quickly followed to offer relief and assistance.

Helicopters were used to evacuate critically ill hospital patients from medical facilities that were flooded or without power, and pilots had to operate from rooftops, decks and parking garages. Crews also rescued nursing home patients and premature infants who needed critical equipment.

Despite the fumbling of logistics on the part of the federal government, individual operators and manufacturers, including Bell Helicopter, American Eurocopter and Sikorsky, reacted decisively to the emergency, flying equipment to the area the morning after the hurricane struck.

One EMS operator–Acadian Ambulance of Lafayette, La.–airlifted 700 hospital patients in the hours before the storm made landfall, and between 1,800 and 2,500 in the following days, flying 17 helicopters with assistance from Southeast Texas Air Ambulance, StatCare Air Ambulance, AirEvac of Missouri, Air Logistics and Petroleum Helicopters. Bell Helicopter Textron enlisted the aircraft of customers Anheuser-Busch, Corman Railway and professional golfer Greg Norman to add to the mix.

John Holland, regional aviation director for Macon, Ga.-based Air Methods, will be singled out for individual honors at today’s HAI award ceremonies as Pilot of the Year for his role in evacuating patients and staff from Tulane Medical Center in the hours immediately after the hurricane struck. Holland broadcast Mayday calls to civil and military helicopters, staying on continuous duty for 60 hours as organizer, traffic coordinator and pilot until the evacuation was completed.

Other corporate operators furnished fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft to help evacuate their own employees and other victims to higher ground, and EADS, the European parent of American Eurocopter, dispatched its Airbus mega-freighter Beluga to Mobile, Ala., with 23 tons of relief supplies.

Helinet Aviation Services received clearance from the FAA as the sole commercial operator to provide aerial images from above areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. Coverage began in the wake of the storm and Helinet continued supplying live and taped images to relief and news organizations from New Orleans; Biloxi, Miss., and other affected areas.

Additionally, helicopters were instrumental in airlifting food, water, supplies, fuel, law enforcement officials, firefighters and relief workers to the region, and helped local utility companies repair power lines.

“This was by far the most challenging flying that I have done in my 19-year career,” said David Webb, a flight instructor at Bell’s customer training academy. “All my past flying helped, but nothing could truly prepare me for what I saw there in New Orleans. There were so many helicopters in the sky at any given time, it was surreal.”