News: Aircrews complete flood rescue missions
Story by Sgt. Jonathan Thibault
FORT CARSON, Colo. – Air crews flew out of Boulder Municipal Airport, Boulder, Colo., for the last time Sept. 19 after six days of non-stop flood evacuation and rescue missions.
A rescue fleet of seven helicopters and 77 soldiers including pilots, crewmembers, maintenance personnel and fuel handlers from 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment, 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, began evacuating flood victims Sept. 14.
Although aviation crews evacuated more than 1,028 people, 338 Family pets, and performed 43 hoist missions, they were not paying attention to numbers.
“When you are out there, this mission you are given is the mission you concentrate on,” said Staff Sgt. Jose Pantoja, flight medic, 2nd GSAB, 4th Avn. Reg. “We weren’t looking for numbers. We were looking for whoever needed to be rescued and saving lives. However, we were amazed when we were told how many we did rescue.”
Flight medics and crewmembers recall the selflessness of Colorado flood evacuees.
“There were people who didn’t want to leave until their neighbors left first,” said Pantoja. “The selflessness they portrayed made us want to work harder and faster to get everyone evacuated, even if it would take us all day.”
Pilots and crewmembers had to depend on each other a lot when flying in the mountains for the evacuation missions.
“It’s a team effort that takes critical back and forth communication,” said Capt. Sean Pearl, CH-47 Chinook pilot and commander, Company B, 2nd GSAB. “Pilots have to be real steady on the controls and crewmembers have to make distance calls. These factors are crucial when you have about a 100 feet worth of blades spinning front to back. They were spot on making sure [pilots] are clear of objects.”
Air crews said conducting evacuation missions hit them more emotionally than some of their experiences with overseas deployments.
“I’ve deployed and helped people of other countries,” said Pantoja. “It felt great to help them, but it’s a different feeling when you’re helping fellow Americans. The photos and videos don’t show the true picture of the devastation of the floods in the mountains. These people, Americans, had to leave their homes; it hurt me to see them hurting. The look of relief on their faces after being rescued validated why we are here, and it drives us.”
Mountains make it very challenging to evacuate people, but the pilots and crews have been training in similar terrain to prepare for these kinds of missions, said Lt. Col. Tyler Smith, UH-60 Black Hawk pilot and battalion commander, 2nd GSAB, 4th Avn. Reg.
“Our pilots have done a lot of training to be comfortable flying in mountainous environments,” said Smith. “The high altitudes limit the power of the aircraft, and every pilot gets to experience that lag in power during training. As a commander and pilot, because of training we did, I had no concerns that my pilots would make the right decisions.”
Even though operations have ceased for 4th CAB, soldiers were
still amped up and ready to help the surrounding Colorado communities with the flood epidemic.
“The soldiers of our organization are a mission-focused group that wants to be part of the action and love to help out,” said Smith. “My only fear was that it would be hard to pull the soldiers off the mountain after they started the mission, just like the Black Forest fire missions. These guys would fly till their eyeballs fell out, if it meant helping the community.”
The day after operations ceased, Air Force Col. Daniel Miller, Title 10 deputy to dual status commander, Joint Task Force Centennial, recognized the 2nd GSAB air crews for the work they did during the Colorado floods and awarded the Colorado National Guard Achievement Medal to Smith and 1st Sgt. Damion Vaughn, Company A, 2nd GSAB, at Butts Army Airfield on Fort Carson, Colo., Sept. 20.