Helicopters respond to California mudslides

Shortly before 6 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 9, the duty aircrew at Coast Guard Forward Operating Base Point Mugu, California, received a call to launch.

Devastating mudslides had been reported in the Carpinteria/Montecito area east of Santa Barbara, and the Santa Barbara County Air Support Unit — which is based at the Santa Ynez Airport, 30 miles to the west — was still grounded due to the heavy rainstorm that had triggered the disaster.

“The devastation was widespread and epic in its proportions,” said Santa Barbara County Air Support Unit pilot Matt Udkow, who flew one of the first aircraft to respond to the disaster. Matt Udkow Photo
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“Our location at Point Mugu was nearly 60 miles away and our weather had already started to improve,” recalled U.S. Coast Guard pilot LCdr Joe Heal, who responded in an Airbus MH-65 Dolphin helicopter along with pilot-in-command Rolla Boggs, flight mechanic Dylan Langley, and rescue swimmer Josh Piasecki. Their first mission: to medevac two burn victims in the San Ysidro Canyon area whose house had caught fire in a gas leak caused by a mudslide.

“We were going to be the first helicopter on scene, and this was the highest-priority known medical situation at the time,” Heal explained. Departing in darkness, he and Boggs were on and off night vision goggles as they flew toward Montecito, and could see the house fire burning high in the foothills through rain and fog.

This would be the first of many aerial rescues that day, as helicopters mobilized to respond to extraordinarily destructive flooding in a region that had recently been traumatized by the Thomas Fire.

The one-two punch of natural disasters was no coincidence. High-intensity wildfires decimate vegetation, leaving soil vulnerable to erosion. The massive Thomas Fire — which burned through more than 280,000 acres (113,000 hectares) to become the largest wildfire in California’s history — left huge areas exposed, with no time to recover before the arrival of heavy winter rains.

As of Jan. 14, authorities had confirmed 20 fatalities related to flooding and mudslides in the region. Sixty-five homes were destroyed in last week’s incident, and more than 460 were significantly damaged.

As Heal and his crew arrived in Montecito, visibility reduced to less than half a mile in rain. They landed in a field near the house fire, loaded the patients onto the helicopter and transported them to the Santa Barbara Airport, where they were met by a waiting ambulance. Then it was off to their next tasking.

“As we patrolled the area on subsequent sorties, much of the destruction was immediately evident,” Heal told Vertical by email. “Rivers of mud had slashed through neighborhoods, cutting paths more than a hundred yards wide from the foothills all the way to the shoreline three miles south. The severity of the damage reminded me of the devastation I’d witnessed responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey this past fall, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami.”

Meanwhile, as the worst of the storm passed, the Santa Barbara Air Support Unit was able to launch two hoist-equipped Bell UH-1H Hueys, “Copter 308” and “Air 3,” each with a pilot, crew chief, and paramedic. These were the second and third helicopters on scene, and their crews also began conducting medical evacuations and hoist rescues, still in very challenging conditions.

A Santa Barbara County Air Support Unit Bell UH-1H hovers over a neighborhood affected by the mudslides on Jan. 9, prior to conducting a hoist rescue. Matt Udkow Photo
A Santa Barbara County Air Support Unit Bell UH-1H hovers over a neighborhood affected by the mudslides on Jan. 9, prior to conducting a hoist rescue. Matt Udkow Photo

“Ceilings were around 300 feet [with] low visibility,” recalled pilot Matt Udkow, who was flying Copter 308. His first mission was the medevac of a woman with a chest wound; after dropping her off at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, he had to delay on the hospital helipad due to a heavy downpour. “It was very difficult to fly, let alone rescue people,” he said.

The rescues were made even more difficult by the large trees in the area, Udkow added. “One of our hoists was conducted at 120 feet, and we had a tree line very close to the skids of the helicopter,” he recalled. A former U.S. Coast Guard and Navy pilot who responded to Hurricane Katrina, Udkow described the rescues as “the most challenging in my career, due to the weather and conditions.”

As Heal’s helicopter reached a critical fuel state, his crew vectored a nearby Sikorsky MH-60T Jayhawk from U.S. Coast Guard Air Station San Diego to a house where a family of five were stuck in the attic. Visibility at the time was still only a half-mile in pouring rain, according to LCdr Wayne O’Donnell, who was flying the Jayhawk along with a new co-pilot, Lt (junior grade) Treston Taylor.

As Taylor held a 110-foot hover for his first-ever rescue hoist, rescue swimmers worked with first responders on the ground to help the family members out of the house and onto the roof for extraction (as seen in the above video). “As they began helping family members to the roof, it quickly became apparent how dire their situation had become,” said O’Donnell.

The parents described fleeing to the attic with their three children — one of whom was an infant just a few weeks old — after being awoken by four feet of mud pouring into their home.

“As we hoisted each family member, the rescue swimmers and our flight mechanic kept the survivors calm and assured them we would get them all to safety,” O’Donnell said. “Covered in mud, all five family members, the two family dogs, and both rescue swimmers were hoisted to the helicopter and delivered to safety at Santa Barbara Airport.”

A crewmember looks out of a Coast Guard MH-65 helicopter during the mudslide response on Jan. 9.
A crewmember looks out of a Coast Guard MH-65 helicopter during the mudslide response on Jan. 9. “Urban search and rescue isn’t something we in the Coast Guard typically respond to, but our diverse training program prepared us well for the tasking,” said  LCdr. Joe Heal. USCG Photo

“Copter 6,” a Ventura County HH-1H Super Huey, was another one of the first air assets on scene. With many residents stranded on rooftops and calling for help on their cell phones, Copter 6 flew to their locations and hoisted a crewmember down to assess their needs.

Over the course of the day, the Copter 6 crew conducted multiple hoist rescues and medevacs, and also discovered and retrieved a man trapped inside a car with heavily tinted windows. As rains continued throughout the day, Copter 6 performed reconnaissance flights to update ground commanders on the evolving situation.

In total, four Coast Guard helicopters responded to the incident that day, in addition to the Santa Barbara and Ventura County air crews. Later in the day, they were joined by two California National Guard UH-60 helicopters from the 1/140th Aviation Battalion, based at Joint Forces Training Base – Los Alamitos in Orange County. Additional Guard aircraft deployed to the area throughout the week.

With numerous aircraft operating close to each other and in poor weather, good communication and a history of collaboration helped keep everyone on the same page.

“Our flights were in close proximity traveling back and forth between the airport in Santa Barbara and the affected area in Montecito, frequently encountering low ceilings and visibility in the varying terrain as the front pushed from the coast up the mountains,” said Heal. “Prior to this event, our Air Station [had] developed an incredible partnership with these entities, which made it easier to coordinate tasking and de-conflict flight paths.”

Echoing Heal’s assessment, Udkow said, “The fact that all our agencies train to similar standards and practices helped make the crowded airspace and difficult rescues possible and safe.”

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