FRANKFORT, Ky. –
As rain continues to hit most of the eastern part of the state, Kentucky Army Aviation crews carry on their mission of search and rescue and move on to air dropping supplies to Kentuckians in need.
Pilots and crews from the 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade have worked non-stop since July 28, 2022 to support communities using a combination of UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters and UH-72 Lakota helicopters.
Detachment 1, Charlie Co. 2/238th Aviation Regiment, MEDEVAC has been performing hoist operations during this time; hoist operations use a wench 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 Blackhawk can land and crews assist in loading residents onto the helicopter to be taken to safe sites.
The Lakota aircraft are being used in conjunction with the Blackhawks to spot possible victims and relay their locations to the Blackhawk companies. In some circumstances, the Lakotas have even been able to assist in moving residents to safe locations.
These two companies have also been working in conjunction with West Virginia and Tennessee National Guard Aviation crews to extract a total of 78 victims by hoist operations and 443 victims by lift operations as of the morning of August 1, 2022.
Crews were alerted to activate around 4:00 a.m. on the day of the flooding and were heading to eastern Kentucky before 7:00 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 a total of 17,200 pounds of supplies, mostly bottled water and bags of donated food to people isolated from blocked roads, destroyed bridges, and high water.
According to Martin, if the pilots can land the aircraft, they can safely hand-off the supplies, but most of the water and donated food have to be dropped from the aircraft while hovering above the locations.
For the MEDEVAC hoist operations, the number of 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 being lowered at the same time as the Blackhawk approaches the victim. Once the victim is secured to the hoist, the Blackhawk can begin to move to the safe location.
This drastically changes the time per victim it takes to extract and get people 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 the first five days of the flooding.
On the first day of flooding, Lowe was lowered down by the Blackhawk’s hoist when they spotted a man victim 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 was able to free the victim and successfully get him to a Hazard, Ky. airport where civilian paramedics were ready to give him additional aid.
“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 are not the only ones working non-stop on operations. U.S. Army Sgt. Cecil Harris, an aviation fuel specialist provided the ground support in eastern Kentucky to the aircraft after it was reported that there was no electrical power to the pumps in the area.
Harris drove a HEMMT fuel truck three hours to refuel locations to keep the Blackhawks and Lakotas in the air.
“The fuel trucks originally here were unable to keep up with the demand for fuel,” said Harris. “Since we came down from Frankfort, we’ve been what’s keeping them going. Fuel is what’s keeping them 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.”
“It’s been an amazing response from the community, everyone in Hazard has truly came together to bring food, supplies, and taking care of those stranded, as well as taking care of the soldiers.”
Additionally, operations crews on the ground with both Kentucky National Guard and local emergency management personnel answered phone calls and relayed locations of stranded people to the aircraft.
Without all these operations, the numbers of lives saved would be drastically less.
“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 other missions that he has been a part of.
“This mission is one we feel extra special about. 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.”