Army Reserve Chinooks lift evacuees and spirits in New Orleans

By Chuck Prichard | U.S. Army Reserve Public Affairs | September 15, 2005

As Chief Warrant Officer Jim Adkins settled his CH-47 Chinook helicopter into a hover over what Hurricane Katrina left of the coastal village of Empire, La., he saw something inspiring. Amongst the overturned shrimp boats and piles of splintered lumber that used to be houses stood the only structure that was still recognizable as a building: a small wooden church.

"Everything else was pretty much demolished. But right there in the middle of all that debris was this church. It had a few shingles missing off the roof but, other than that, it looked like it was in pretty good shape," said Adkins, as he recalled the incident.

That inspirational feeling didn’t last very long. When Adkins maneuvered the helicopter for a landing, he took a second look at the church. "I saw this empty foundation of a building. It was about 50 yards from the church. It took me a second or two to figure out that it actually was the foundation of the church and that the storm had picked up and moved the whole building. That’s when I thought to myself ’Well, that’s it. Every last thing in this town has been destroyed,’" Adkins said, shaking his head.

He and the other members of B Co. of the 159th Aviation Regiment’s 5th Battalion will have many similar stories to tell when they finish their current tour of duty. For now, though, the 46 members of the first Army Reserve unit called up to support the Hurricane Katrina relief effort are too busy to talk at length about their experiences. The unit’s 12 pilots keep its five Chinooks in the air over New Orleans and the surrounding area from sunrise to sunset performing a variety of missions.

"We came down here to work hard and that’s what we are doing," said Maj. Michael Buford, commander of the unit, which is headquartered at Fort Eustis, Va. "The days are long but my guys understand the importance of this mission and they are giving it their all."

The unit’s statistics back up Buford’s assessment. In a typical month back home the unit’s helicopters log about 90 hours in the air. In their first seven days since reporting to New Orleans Naval Air Station for the post-hurricane operations, the B Co. helicopters spent 138 hours in the air hauling people and cargo into and out of the disaster area. They carried approximately 1,400 Soldiers and rescue workers; 115,000 pounds of internal cargo consisting of mostly food and water and 1,718,000 pounds of external cargo, mostly large sandbags that they dropped to seal the breaches along the city’s protective canal system. The crews have also transported 128 residents and several pets that were rescued from the flood waters.

"We picked up one grandmother in a wheelchair who had been up in her attic since the storm came through. She was a tough lady but she was glad we came along and got her out. That’s what we came here for - to help people," said Chief Warrant Officer Glenn Coffin, another pilot.

Because Buford anticipated that the unit might get called out to help with hurricane recovery and prepared members for a short-notice departure, B Co. was able to load up and get to the scene quickly. They arrived at the NAS at about 10 p.m. on Sept. 5. They started flying missions at 7:30 a.m. the next day. By the end of that first day they had rescued 93 people.

The most dramatic pick up of the first day demonstrated the fluid nature of the unit’s mission. After dropping off a rescue team, a B Co. helicopter was heading to another mission when an urgent call came over the radio for an evacuation from a New Orleans neighborhood being swamped by rising floodwater. They were near the area so the crew responded. Despite having no radio communication with the rescue crew on the ground, the pilots were able to avoid several obstacles and land the Chinook on a highway overpass that was not submerged. The rescue team brought out 26 residents using amphibious vehicles. The helicopter crew loaded them on the aircraft and took them safety at the New Orleans International Airport.

"It’s hard to do something like this and not feel good about it," said Lt. Col. Vincent Mercandante, 5th Battalion commander. "We don’t get a lot of interaction with the people because we generally pick them up and drop them off pretty quickly. But their handshakes, ’thumbs up’ and big smiles let us know that they appreciate what we do."