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Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas coast as a Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 25, dropping as much as 50 inches (127 centimeters) of rainfall in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana. As flooding devastated neighborhoods in Houston and surrounding areas, U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) helicopter crews responded in force. We spoke with four of the Coast Guard personnel who helped rescue Harvey flood victims: pilot Lieutenant Commander Joe Heal, who is normally stationed at Air Station San Francisco Forward Operating Base Point Mugu; Lieutenant Daniel Crowley, assistant operations officer at Air Station Houston; and pilot Lieutenant Amanda Montour and aviation survival technician Daniel Strange, both of Air Station Houston.
How did the call come to deploy for Harvey rescue operations?
LCDR Joe Heal:
As I’m sure many of us were, I was following the events in southeast Texas very closely, and was surprised by how quickly the storm increased in strength. Before the storm hit, USCG Air Station Houston had requested several extra crews and helicopters from units such as San Diego, but the intense and continuous rainfall required even more support. I had dropped my kids off at their first day of school on Monday morning when the text from my commanding officer arrived, directing me and four fellow aircrew to immediately deploy to the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Alabama, for further transportation to Houston.
We were made up of two pilots, two flight mechanics, and one rescue swimmer. The five of us gathered our gear — the four of them up in San Francisco and myself down in Los Angeles — and flew commercial air to Mobile Regional Airport. Tuesday found us together in a C-144 Ocean Sentry heading west to Houston through the storm. We dodged a couple heavy rain bands but made it to Houston safely, where we spent the remainder of the day checking in and getting briefed on local operations and hazards. Early Wednesday morning we were all strapping into different aircraft and heading out to assist.
LT Amanda Montour:
I was attending our annual emergency procedure refresher and instrument procedures check course at the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center in Mobile the week prior to Harvey arriving in Houston. I made arrangements to leave Mobile a couple days early to ensure that I could be back before the storm hit. We made arrangements for my wife, Lyndsay, to evacuate to Austin, Texas, with our two dogs: Dash and Bella.
I arrived back in Houston Thursday evening, just in time to help Lyndsay pack up the dogs and the car in order to head to Austin Friday morning. Throughout the remainder of the day Friday, I made sure all of my gear was packed with a week’s worth of clothes, food, and other necessities in case I needed to ride out the storm at the air station.
A great thing about the USCG is the standardization of flight crew training. You can take any pilot, co-pilot, flight mechanic, and rescue swimmer and put them into an aircraft together thanks to standardized procedures. How did this play out during Harvey rescue operations?
That is definitely something that the Coast Guard does exceptionally well — training to and enforcing a certain standard. Standardized procedures allow us to quickly assimilate into new commands when we transition from one unit to another every four years or so, but it also allows us to easily operate with any pilot, flight mechanic, rescue swimmer, or basic aircrew in any situation for which we are qualified.
To illustrate this point, I flew nearly every day between Aug. 30 and Sept. 9, and never flew with any of the four I had deployed with from San Francisco. The officers running the operations department were not hampered by originating unit, matching crew rest and balancing qualifications to construct their flight schedule. Standardization enabled the schedulers to assign crews from locations as diverse as Hawaii, Alaska, the Great Lakes, and Southern California, who then flew together easily and safely.
LT Daniel Crowley:
As the standardization officer of Air Station Houston, one of the things I was most proud of was that I felt zero trepidation knowing even our most junior qualified aircrew were heading out to perform the mission in some of the most complex and challenging conditions imaginable. Our incredible instructors and an aggressive training program have prepared our aircrew to safely manage risk in any scenario and they proved it that week.
Coast Guard standardization eliminates a lot of the “spool up” time it would take people that are meeting for the first time to execute the mission safely. There really isn’t a need to “feel” someone out to figure out how they do things because in the most critical phases of flight — takeoff, landing, precision hovering, and hoisting — all phraseology and profiles are standard. This baseline of standards for airspeeds, altitudes, and order of operations makes it very apparent when a crew member has deviated and begs a challenge from either the other pilot, flight mechanic, or rescue swimmer. In response, Coasties are used to these challenges and rarely feel their pride is being attacked while flying. This keeps the egos in check and correctly prioritizes safety above all else.
Daniel, as a rescue swimmer, how did you feel about going onto the roofs of homes? What extra, nonstandard equipment did you carry, and what precautions did you take for going into contaminated water?
AST1 Daniel Strange:
In every rescue swimmer shop, we train for as many different types of situations as possible. In Houston, we do training with local fire departments on roof entry and safety. It was most definitely different deploying out of the helicopter while carrying an axe or a chainsaw. As new rescue swimmers began to show up to the air station to help out, we made sure that everybody got a quick training session on operating the equipment and what hazards to watch out for.
As for deploying into the contaminated water, it was a risk that all of us were willing to take. During my rescues, I spent most of my time wading through the water. I mainly focused on the hazards that I could see and tried to avoid them as much as possible: fire ants, fuel slicks, debris, sharp objects, animals, etc. In addition, medical had our flight surgeon and corpsmen at the base just in case any health problems came up. And of course, we all made sure to get a good shower, clean any scratches or bites and clean off all of our gear when we got back.
Did you fly rescues at night?
We flew at night but we tried to be discriminating. The risk was high at all times, but it was especially high at night. No crew is going to want to come back when there are still cases of distress coming in, but there were times where the gain was not commensurate with the risk of hoisting through obstacles at night when there were surface alternatives available to conduct the rescue. The low cloud layers and cultural lighting also created an odd phenomenon. Often this combination creates very favorable conditions for NVGs [night vision goggles]. However, the clouds were so low that the goggles tended to de-gain significantly from the cultural lighting that was reflecting off of the clouds. Most of the SAR [search-and-rescue] cases were in areas without power and virtually no cultural lighting. When the lighted clouds remained in the field of view the goggles remained degained, making unlit towers extremely treacherous.
I did end up flying at night but had not planned on it. We had just picked up our last of at least 20 survivors off of a roof and decided to continue searching, since we still had 30 minutes of fuel left. After only a few minutes, we saw two people standing in the middle of a cul-da-sac in almost chest high water waving a towel at us. I was deployed to the street and waded over to them. While talking to them other people starting coming out of their flooded houses asking for assistance. During that time, the helo radioed down to me telling me that they only had a couple minutes of fuel left.
We decided to hoist the two people that originally flagged us down, they ended up being two young teenagers that had been separated from their family. I put both of them in the recue basket and decided that I would stay behind and start going house to house on the street checking on everybody while the helo went to refuel. As the helo was gone it started getting dark. I found a house that had 11 people (consisting of two adult females and nine children) who had no food or water. By the time the helo got back the sun had completely set. They radioed down that they only had enough fuel to do a few hoists. I told them of the 11 survivors but that we could do it in three hoists. Somehow, we were able to fit 15 people including the crew into the MH-65D helicopter. One thing that stuck with me was when I was being hoisted back up to the helo, I looked around and saw so many spotlights being shone into the sky from so many of the houses below.
Normally you work over the ocean without many obstacles. What were your thoughts about working over city and urban overland environments?
It’s a completely different animal. Many of our normal habits and safeguards are obsolete in the overland environment. Real-time risk management was crucial. Being stationed in the area, I was familiar with many of the potential obstacles. When I briefed incoming crews I really tried to emphasize that this would be one of the most challenging areas they would ever operate in, particularly at night. There are a lot of towers in the Houston area, many as high as 2,000 feet.
After the storm, some were without power and thus unlit, which added to the hazard. That was what made me the most nervous through the aftermath of the storm: crews unfamiliar with the area conducting rescues over land at night. The gain was definitely worth the risk, but I do feel like we are fortunate we got through unscathed. It’s a testament to those crews.
At Air Staton Houston, we continually try to find things that are different and spend a week of focused training toward. Ironically, one of the “Focus on Proficiency” topics we did in the past revolved around confined area landings and urban search-and-rescue; meaning, we hoisted from cars, trees, or structures while conducting landing zone touch-and-go’s around Houston.
For me, as a more junior pilot, that was the only experience I had to fall back on when responding to Harvey in the Houston area. Towers, power lines, and other aircraft were constant threats to operations. We were able to mitigate these close by hazards with good crew resource management, communication, and the best pilots, flight mechanics, and rescue swimmers in the business.
How did you deconflict with other rescue helicopter crews in the area, including Army, Navy, and Air Force crews?
The short answer is we used see-and-avoid. When I started flying on Wednesday, the larger Houston airports were up and running, though a TFR [temporary flight restriction] kept much of the general aviation traffic away. However, when we diverted east into the tropical storm to assist Beaumont and Port Arthur, the two airports there were closed. I tried to reach tower a few times, but when I realized no one was answering I focused on the airspace in my immediate area and directed my crew to keep a close lookout for anyone that might be a factor. Some helos were better than others about making traffic calls on the tower frequency, but honestly the comms and airspace were so saturated that position reports didn’t help much.
What were the environmental conditions during your operations, and how did they compare to what you would normally fly in?
The weather conditions were easily the worst I have ever flown in. Winds consistently above 25 knots gusting as high as 50 from seemingly random directions. I saw the worst downdrafts I have ever encountered. We would establish a hover with what we anticipated was an ample power margin. However, even with a 20 percent margin the downdrafts and gusts would create momentary excursions right to our maximum torque limit.
On our first morning flying we completed a SAR case and were low on fuel. A large rain squall developed in front of our only path back to the Air Station. Visibility was no more than a quarter-mile. We could have diverted to a different airfield, but our crew was approaching our daily flight time limit, which meant that if the transit to another airfield took too long, we — and more importantly the aircraft — would be stuck there until we got a fresh crew. Being familiar with the area, I knew we could safely pick our way back to Ellington as long as we could maintain that quarter-mile, which is exactly what we did. It’s not something I would try on any other day, but by doing so that aircraft was rearmed with a new crew and able to get back out on SAR in minutes instead of hours.
We saw you also rescued dogs and cats. How did that feel, and what were the rules on doing it?
When it comes to rescuing dogs or cats, for me it depends on how many animals there are, how they are behaving, and their size. I had to tell two people that I couldn’t take their dogs because they had eight of them, so they decided to stay behind. But I also hoisted a couple of small dogs in the basket with their owners. It all depends on the situation.
Policy states that the rescue of pets is at the discretion of the pilot-in-command, and that it is allowed only if it can be done without the pet becoming a hazard to others in the aircraft. I would not want to put my crew at risk to rescue an animal, but I think most of us would chose to do what they could to recover the pets safely if possible. My crew rescued two pets. We all felt good about rescuing the animals — these rescues were a bright spot in an otherwise sobering day.
Now that the operations are over, what are your thoughts on helping Americans in their worst of times?
First, I want to thank the others who would have gone in a heartbeat, but stayed back and stood extra duty for those of us who went. Second, I want to express my admiration for the members of CG Air Station Houston. These men and women were themselves affected by Harvey — many were retrieved or rescued by their shipmates from their own flooded homes and neighborhoods — and they all worked incredibly long hours for days on end to serve others in need.
Last, I’d like to say how proud I was to see and hear of the many residents, volunteers, and local first responders who came together during and after the storm to help each other. It was pretty incredible to fly over these small towns and see neighborhood after neighborhood canvassed by small boats, trucks, and volunteers, all helping each other to safety.
Twelve years ago, while still in the Navy, I flew rescues in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The opportunity to assist in some way in the wake of that disaster was one of the most impactful events of my naval service and is a major reason why I applied for the direct commission transition to the Coast Guard a few years later. It’s crazy to think how that decision put me in a position to assist during Harvey. You never want to see this type of devastation and distress anywhere, but it affects you even more when it happens to your neighbors in a place you’ve called home for the past three years. I’m just grateful we were able to help.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.