HAZARD, Ky. –
The Kentucky National Guard’s 63rd’s Theater Aviation Brigade was called on to rescue the residents of Eastern Kentucky as flood waters rose and became an imminent threat to those on the ground July 28, 2022.
With the help of the West Virginia National Guard and Tennessee National Guard, the crews of the Detachment 1, Carlie Co. 2-238th Aviation- ‘Wildcat DUSTOFF’ were able to rescue almost 450 residents with a total of 78 hoist missions where the victims couldn’t be reached by boats or other means.
To keep the UH-60 Black Hawks in the air and in the fight, gallons upon gallons of fuel had to be made available and ready to be put into each one of the helicopters quickly. That responsibility landed squarely on the shoulders of Army Sgt. William ‘Cecil’ Harris and his crew.
Cecil is a fuel supply specialist (92F) who has been in the Kentucky Guard for almost 13 years.
According to Harris, a UH-60 takes around 360 gallons of fuel to fill up and allows the aircraft about two and a half hours of air time on a normal day. From when he started his mission Friday to the next Monday, he used 10,000 gallons.
When the call came telling him that he was going to be needed, his original mission was to take his HEMMTT fuel truck with 2,500 gallons of fuel to the airport in Hazard to provide additional support for the day with Staff Sgt. Aaron Cook and Spc. Tory Crawford, who were on their annual training orders that would be ending that day.
But as soon as they were getting ready to leave on Friday night, the airport’s main fuel truck broke down and were told that they were going to be needed longer to be the airport’s main fuelers.
Since Harris was the only one who could stay over the weekend, he was flown back to Frankfort so he could go home and grab more of his things while Cook and Crawford left for home.
With the daunting task at hand, Harris found himself working alone for the next 48 hours.
“The first three days, Friday, Saturday, Sunday were pretty hectic, said Harris. “You're talking about fueling Black Hawks from the Tennessee Guard, Kentucky Guard and West Virginia Guard (among other rescue entities).”
He continued describing his mission and what he faced.
“The next day when I returned, I ran the operation by myself from Saturday to Monday” said Harris. “I would start operations around eight o'clock in the morning and I wouldn't get done refueling until about eight or nine o'clock at night. It was nonstop with hardly any breaks in between. At times I was attempting to fuel 10 aircraft at once and as soon as I’d get down at the end of the line, four more come in and shut down, I just had to go back to back to back. It was a revolving cycle.”
During the two days he said that he had to do ‘cold’ refuels with the Black Hawks since he was by himself. A cold refuel is when the aircraft comes to a complete stop and has to shut down its rotors opposed to a ‘hot’ refuel where the helicopter keeps its systems on and rotors going so it can take off again right after its filled up.
At any given time, there were about ten aircraft at the Hazard airport waiting to be refueled and Harris estimated that he fueled up about 26 to 28 aircraft a day for the first four days.
“During the operations on Saturday and Sunday, I would just run in and grab something to eat and something to drink and just run back out to the truck and try to eat it on the way out to the other aircraft,” he said. “At some point, especially like when it got towards the afternoon and the heat really started kicking in, I’d get a little discouraged. But you have to do what you can to just push through it. I was just thinking of all those people that needed the help”.
When Cook and Crawford were put on orders again and returned on the following Monday, they brought another HEMMT full of fuel and allowed Harris a moment to breathe.
Harris and his crew continued to refuel aircraft until the following Friday.
But they didn’t get to go home, they still had their drill weekend to attend in Frankfort.
“Despite the MEDEVAC being heavily involved during the flooding, we still had drill on schedule,” said Harris. “We all came back off mission and then we all had to go straight to drill.”
But it was during that weekend that a rare opportunity presented itself.
As Harris was about to leave work Saturday he was contacted by the commander of the Army Aviation Support Facility, Lt. Col. Stephen Martin with a request that few receive.
“Lt. Col. Martin called me and said that somebody just called him and requested someone to help fuel Marine One and that he was going to need me to come in and do it,” said Harris.
Due to the severity of the flooding President Joe Biden was going to be touring the affected areas in Eastern Kentucky and with his visit, Marine One and several Osprey aircraft had to be flown into Lexington and was requiring fuel. Harris was excited with that opportunity and used it as a good excuse to miss out on drill.
“I called my first line leader up, which was Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy Lowe, and told that I was going to have to miss drill,” said Harris. “When he asked why, I told him it was because I would be fueling Marine One and he was just like, ‘Well, alright, good excuse.”
Lowe himself had been heavily involved with the rescues and hoist missions the week before and was impressed with the work ethic of his Soldier.
“He’s always been a great Soldier,” said Lowe. “He works extremely hard, especially during the flooding. We could not have been as successful as we were without him and his team’s efforts.”
After the president’s visit, Harris was presented a Presidential Marine One coin by the Marine captain in charge of Marine One in appreciation of his work.
“The captain said there wasn't very many of those running around,” added Harris. “It's an honor that I got the coin, as well as an honor to help out the president. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Despite not getting to sneak a peak into Marine One or meeting the president, Harris was able to take photos of himself in front of the aircraft, as well as with the Ospreys.
The praise of Harris’ hard work came from Guard leadership as well and reiterated the integral part he played in the lives of so many.
“Between Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee Army National Guard helicopters, we flew hundreds of hours in support of the flooding in Eastern Kentucky. The majority of that support would not have happened without Harris' steadfast dedication to mission accomplishment and his going above and beyond,” said Martin. “It’s because of his professionalism and abilities that he was given the opportunity to support the Presidential Airlift as well, which few get the chance to do. Cecil's contribution to help those most in need in Eastern Kentucky cannot be overstated.”
With him being gone so long, his two children have missed him being home but said they are proud that he has been involved and even wish they could have been able to join him in helping.
“I have a son who’s 10 and every night he asks questions about what I’m doing and where I am,” said Harris. “He was really proud and he said he wished he was down there to help out.”
He also has a 7-year-old daughter that is really into helicopters and loves to come to work with him occasional and while he was gone she he told him that that she was sad that she wasn’t allowed to join him on this mission.
Harris is happy that he was there to help the folks of Eastern Kentucky and wanted to take a minute to thank his crew for the work they did and express how much he meant to them.
“I would to thank Cook and Crawford. They helped me the majority of the time and I could not have hot refueled without them. At one point in time, we had Sgt. Miller as well who helped after it all slowed down. I couldn't really do it without my guys and I want to give a big thank you to the MEDEVAC that I’m in, I wouldn't be the person I am with them. Those guys are really an inspiration to be with.”