Sept. 7, 2005 —
GULFPORT, Miss. – They load up with supplies and fly out. They pass over rural, outlying areas and begin their search. There are reports that say there are people in this general area that need the cargo the bird is carrying. A small group, about ten people, is spotted at two o’clock. By the time they touch down, that number has tripled. The crewmembers unload food, water, ice and baby supplies only to take off moments later. They have to get back to base and prepare for the next drop.
A devastated people in Southern Mississippi are getting much needed supplies thanks to these knights in olive drab armor.
Army National Guard pilots are flying helicopter missions out to designated distribution points within the cities and also isolated locations where many people are trapped and in many cases without food and water. Roads and bridges going into many of these areas are completely destroyed, preventing any shipments of supplies on the ground.
For Maj. Gen. Harold Cross, adjutant general, Mississippi National Guard, these operations couldn’t be more important. “Many people out there have no food or water and would likely die if it weren’t for these troops,” he said.
In cut off areas, pilots are taking targets of opportunity wherever they can find them.
“A lot of times, the people are holding up signs saying ‘we need food’ or ‘we need water now,’” said Maj. Jeff McWhirter, 1st Battalion, 85th Aviation Group, Miss. Army National Guard.
The process of getting to these remote locations first involves scouting operations by OH-58 Kiowa helicopters. They go out and find people, isolated, in need. They touch down and find out what the people require. They then relay that information back to the operations center at the Combat Readiness Training Center in Gulfport.
“As we find large numbers of people, we decide how big of a load we need, and then we air-drop food and water to them,” McWhirter said. “We also do (medical evacuation) operations if medical attention is required.”
From there, troops will load either a UH-60 Blackhawk or CH-47 Chinook helicopter with the necessary supplies and fly out to the general area where the people were reported to have been. It’s up to the pilot and co-pilot to find the people and a suitable place to land and distribute the supplies.
Air operations cease at sundown and resume immediately at sunrise. They take off and land with frequency.
“We started out with just one drop-off point for supplies, now we have more than 80,” said Col. Brad MacNealy, state aviation officer, Mississippi Army National Guard. “We had nearly 250 flights go out yesterday.”
“It’s a never-ending cycle; it just keeps going,” said Sgt. Perry Hopman, 696th Medical Company (Air Ambulance), Arkansas Army National Guard.
The pilots and their helicopters aren’t the only troops factoring into this equation, however. Aviation support units are on the ground at CRTC working maintenance on helicopters and providing support with relief operations.
One such unit is the 1108th Aviation Classification Repair Activity Depot, Mississippi Army National Guard.
“We weathered the hurricane at Camp Shelby (Mississippi) and released those who had family on the coast before it hit,” said Col. James Young, 1108th AVCRAD. “Once the hurricane passed, we were allowed to come down here and get in the fight.”
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the 1108th has more than 30 people who are now homeless and more than 100 who have significant damage to their homes, Young said.
Young’s unit is mobilizing for Iraq and this will make that process more difficult, he said. “There are a couple of Soldiers we released right before the hurricane that are still unaccounted for. We have to get the troops taken care of and look forward from there.”
For MacNealy, coming down to Gulfport has been a sobering experience. “Before I came down here, I was upset that a tree fell on my brand new shed,” he said. “Now that I’m down here, that shed is nothing compared to any of this.”