Helicopters critical to Irene flood relief

September 1, 2011

Helicopters—both military and civilian—are proving critical to relief operations in Vermont and upstate New York as the region struggles to recover from devastating flooding spawned by Hurricane Irene, which was downgraded to a tropical storm as it moved through the northeastern states Sunday and Monday, Aug. 28 and 29. The flooding washed out bridges and roadways, causing damage that could take weeks or months to repair and isolating communities.

“We have a large complement of military Black Hawks conducting sling-load operations from a staging area on the west side of the state,” Guy Rouelle, Vermont’s aviation program administrator, said late Wednesday. “There are plans to set up an additional staging area on the east side of the state to expedite supply operations. The Rutland airport hosted approximately 300 operations [Aug. 30], with civilian helicopters transporting folks from the resorts that are locked in due to the road closures.”

Rouelle said that 13 sorties airlifted 64,000 pounds of supplies—including water, food, and medicine—on Wednesday to areas that were cut off from highway access. “There are a lot of four-wheeler operations going on. Today I was flying, and you can see the four-wheel armada from the air.”
Civil Air Patrol volunteers are also flying in the area. “The Civil Air Patrol has been conducting sorties, carrying FEMA and state personnel to inspect and photograph the flood damage from the air,” Rouelle said.

Fortunately, Vermont’s aviation infrastructure escaped the storm relatively unscathed. “The only damage reported was a windsock at the Newport State airport and some airport access road damage,” Rouelle said. “We had two hazard beacons at Rutland and six at Hartness that went down.”

In New York, aircraft are being used for search and rescue, damage assessment, and transport, said Lt. Mark Haskell of the New York State Police. “We’re in a state of emergency. The Guard has been activated, and we’re operating in conjunction with agencies that have their own air assets,” he said.

Five Bell 430 helicopters, two Bell 407s, and three UH-1s—two tactical helicopters with rescue hoists, and one with floats—are among state police aircraft in use, along with a Beech King Air and two Cessna 206s, Haskell said. Most of the helicopters have forward-looking infrared (FLIR) and hoist capabilities.
Tech. Sgt. Jim Bendo, a New York State Police line pilot from Syracuse, N.Y., since 1999—the former Army aviator is a second-generation state police pilot—has been working as an air coordinator at a command post established in the state police headquarters building in Albany. “It was a battle against the weather. Aviation was just one resource to utilize,” he said, adding that relief efforts have been handled very much like a military operation.

Bendo is one of two air coordinators working around the clock. Aircraft requests are sent through emergency operations coordinators—there’s one in every county—to the state police coordination center, resulting in a computerized request form. “We would open that up, see what that request was, and based on the needs of that mission we would select an aircraft.”

The smaller state police helicopters usually were tasked first. “If it was something with larger amounts of personnel to be moved, we would send a larger aircraft.” Bendo said a variety of aircraft were available through the National Guard. “We’ve been working hand in hand with the Army National Guard in Albany,” which had available a King Air, four CH-47 Chinooks, 12 UH-60 Black Hawks, and an OH-58 Kiowa with video downlink and aerial observation capabilities. Bendo said he worked closely with Chief Warrant Officer 5 Kent Wagner of the National Guard.

“The CH-47s were utilized to move large amounts of water to certain areas,” he explained; a C-130 Hercules flew at least one supply mission. “The first couple of days, the weather was so bad we couldn’t fly,” he noted.

Airborne relief operations have followed a normal progression and are winding down, Bendo said. Once the weather improved, there were a number of search and rescue missions in areas where the water was still high. “Then our role went more to damage assessment and moving personnel, as well as food and water resupply.” Flights now are shifting to VIP movement, in addition to resupply. “We’re doing aerial observation, as well—checking dams for signs of breaching. We’ve been working directly with FEMA on a number of things.”

As the hurricane approached the northeastern United States, the initial focus was primarily on New York City; upstate damage from flooding was not expected. The federal government had a wide variety of aircraft standing by for service—C-130s, C-5s, CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters, and additional UH-60 Black Hawk variants, as well as Coast Guard aircraft—which ultimately were not used. “But they were there if we needed them,” Bendo said. “The key was having these assets [available], and being able to work together with these agencies. Everybody had a little piece of this puzzle, and it worked out perfectly.”

FEMA used Republic Airport on Long Island to stage personnel and equipment, said Gerardo Mendoza, acting director of the New York State Department of Transportation’s Aviation Bureau. “We know of a couple of airports that sustained damage because of flooding, but we don’t know the extent of the damage.”
On Sept. 1, dozens of major roads through the Adirondack Mountains were still reported as closed, making travel by ground difficult. Significant flooding damage also was reported in portions of Connecticut and New Jersey. Estimates of Irene’s damage have ranged as high as $7 billion.

Mike Collins

Mike Collins | Technical Editor, AOPA

Mike Collins has worked for AOPA’s media network since 1994. He holds a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating.