National Guard Aircrews Bring Aid to Mississippians
By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service
GULFPORT, Miss., Sept. 9, 2005 National Guard soldiers flying helicopters from dawn to dusk are providing a critical air bridge to communities throughout the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Shirley Lott hugs Sgt. William Martin of the Ohio Army National Guard after he and other aircrew members delivered supplies to her community Sept. 8. Photo by Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Throughout the Mississippi Delta, thousands of residents are not able to reach relief-distribution points; many don't have cars, and countless roads are impassable.
"We're flying 300 missions a day, flying out food and water to these people," Mississippi Army National Guard Lt. Col. Tim Powell said. Aircrews here say they fly four to 15 missions per day, depending on the distance of their drops from the busy Air National Guard Combat Readiness Training Center airfield.
Aircrews hail from all over the United States. Aircraft tail markers from California, Ohio, Mississippi and other states were visible on the tarmac.
An air operations officer said 62 helicopters flew relief missions here and into affected Mississippi areas Sept. 8.
The helicopter airlift fleet is mostly UH-1 Hueys and UH-60 Black Hawks. Several OH-58 Kiowas are used for reconnaissance. Each Huey or Black Hawk can carry about two pallets of military rations, water and ice. Their cargo areas are filled with supplies as the helicopters lift off and fly into the damaged areas.
The airlift crews also perform reconnaissance. "We'll go out over debris fields and see if we see anything," Mississippi Army National Guard Sgt. Clayton Pickle, a UH-60 crew chief, said. "We'll go looking in places where people are cut off."
Crews generally fly to known supply points. But, in areas where they can land, they will also provide aid to victims on the ground who wave at them or display a distress signal. If the pilots can't land their aircraft safely, they plot the position of the victims and send help from the ground.
"I heard a lot of helicopters one day," White Cypress Lakes resident Shirley Lott said. Her community of 300 has one road in and out, Lott said.
"I couldn't do a sign in the yard because of all the debris," Lott said. So she climbed atop her home and wrote "Help" on her roof.
"It wasn't long before the first Black Hawk stopped down there and downloaded some food and water," Lott said. Since then, Lott, a former soldier, and her husband have become leaders in their communities. She coordinates the reception of supplies at nearby Mint Julep Airpark, and her husband drives through the community and distributes military rations, water, ice and baby products.
Sept. 8 she greeted aircrews with two trucks and told an aircrew from the New York National Guard that parents in the community are running low on diapers and baby formula. The pilot scribbled notes attentively.
"This should last us several days," Lott told the crew who delivered the supplies. "It's wonderful," she said about the relief drops. "It's overwhelming."
Lott, now an unemployed medical paralegal who lost her job in New Orleans and the tin roof on her home, also told a pilot about people in need of medication; she mentioned diabetics, pregnant women and people with heart ailments.
"We're really, really pleased with the response," Lott said. "Everybody's coming together in this really nicely."
"They're grateful for everything they get," Ohio Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer 3 Tom Fair said Sept. 8 after flying a relief drop into the backwoods of Mississippi. He and his crew carefully set down in a clearing in the woods and were met by victims who helped unload the Black Hawk. It was noon, and already he and his crew had flown six missions.
Fair is one of 45 Ohio Army Guardsmen serving in Mississippi, after returning from a deployment to Kosovo earlier this year.
"This is the reason why I joined the National Guard," Ohio Army National Guard Sgt. Foster Kennedy said. A light-wheeled-vehicle mechanic by trade, Kennedy services vehicles, but volunteers and puts in extra hours loading and unloading helicopters and travels with aircrews to deliver supplies. "I wasn't going to miss a chance to help. We're here to help our own," he said.
Aircrews here said that while most of them fly only during daylight hours, the average crew duty day is 12 to 18 hours. On the ground at the airfield, 10 aircraft are normally moving about, landing or taking off, while others are loaded and refueled. The process continues systematically throughout the day.