FRANKFORT, Ky. – As rain continues to hit most of the eastern part of the state, Kentucky Army Guard aviation crews carry on their search and rescue mission and move on to air-dropping supplies to Kentuckians in need in the aftermath of devastating flooding.
Pilots and crews from the 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade have worked nonstop since July 28 to support communities using a combination of UH-60 Black Hawk and UH-72 Lakota helicopters.
Detachment 1, Charlie Co. 2/238th Aviation Regiment, MEDEVAC has been performing hoist operations, using a winch and cable system to lower a crewmember to rescue victims in areas the helicopters cannot land.
Bravo Co. 2/147th Assault Helicopter Battalion (AHB) conducts lift operations. These are operations where the Black Hawk can land and crews help load residents onto the helicopter and fly them to safety.
The Lakota aircraft are used with the Black Hawks to spot victims and relay their locations to the Black Hawk companies. In some circumstances, the Lakotas have even been able to help move residents to safe places.
These two companies also worked with West Virginia and Tennessee National Guard aviation crews to extract 78 people by hoist and 443 victims by lift as of Aug. 1.
Crews were alerted to activate around 4 a.m. on the day of the flooding and were heading to eastern Kentucky before 7 a.m.
“We have to give credit to the employers of our traditional National Guardsmen,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Martin, director of the Army Aviation Support Facility. “Without their understanding, we cannot have such a swift and robust response to help our community.”
As search and operations have continued, Kentucky Army aviation has also dropped 17,200 pounds of supplies, mostly bottled water and bags of donated food, to people isolated because of blocked roads, destroyed bridges and high water. Martin said pilots can safely hand off supplies if pilots can land, but most of the water and food must be dropped from the aircraft while hovering.
The number of medevac hoist operations is very significant. In the past, medevac flights have used a “static” operation in which the aircraft goes into a hover above the victim, lowers the crew, then extracts the victim. The pilots usually will not come out of a hover until the crew and victim are aboard the helicopter.
Recently the new standard has changed to a “dynamic” hoist operation. In this scenario, the crewmember is lowered as the Black Hawk approaches the victim. Once the victim is secured to the hoist, the Black Hawk can begin to move to the safe location.
This method significantly speeds up the time it takes to extract people and get them to safety.
“The U.S. Army is modernizing its medevac crews to increase reliability,” said Martin. “We hired a private company to teach and implement these procedures into our standard operating practices. We are one of the first in the National Guard to do this.”
Sgt. First Class Jeremy Lowe, a critical care flight paramedic with Detachment 1, Charlie Co., helped evacuate residents for five days. On the first day of flooding, Lowe was lowered by the Black Hawk’s hoist to a man clinging for life to a tree in a flooded wooded area.
The man had been stuck in the tree for hours and was ready to let go when Lowe and his crew arrived. Lowe freed the man and he was flown to an airport in Hazard, where civilian paramedics took over.
“We went back out for a different victim in a different tree about a half mile up water,” said Lowe. “When we got that victim out and to the airport, the first victim I hoisted was her husband. So I was able to reunite them.”
Pilots and crew were not the only ones working nonstop. With no electrical power to pumps in the area, U.S. Army Sgt. Cecil Harris, an aviation fuel specialist, drove a fuel truck three hours to refuel locations to keep the Black Hawks and Lakotas in the air.
“We can refuel the aircraft while the blades are running so we can get them back out there to help as quick as possible,” Harris said.
Additionally, operations crews on the ground with the Kentucky National Guard and local emergency management personnel answered phone calls and relayed the locations of stranded people to the aircraft.
“The physical impacts of just pulling victims in and the victims are exhausted. We have a full person’s weight that we have to move around,” said Lowe. “We’re exhausted. We’re flying eight hours per day, right up to as long as we could fly.”
Lowe has been on many missions in his career to extract people trapped in the mountains of Kentucky, but this one was unlike others.
“This mission is one we feel extra special about,” he said. “It means a lot to us to help our own citizens of the commonwealth. To get out and be the difference in these people’s lives.”