By Tech. Sgt. Lindsey Maurice, 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
/ Published September 28, 2017
PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- One of the biggest natural disasters in U.S. history, Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, devastated Texas in a matter of hours on Aug. 25, 2017. With flood waters surging and families and pets trapped in homes, buildings, and vehicles, the 920th Rescue Wing was called into action.
“We carry a lot of unique skillsets and experience that made our crews a critical part of the rescue effort,” said Col. Michael LoForti, 920th Operations Group commander. “Some of our folks participated with Hurricane Katrina relief in 2005, where we rescued 1043 people. That experience, along with our night rescue capability provided a niche that most local and state officials did not possess.”
Roughly 90 Airmen, two HC-130Ns King aerial refueling aircraft and three HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters deployed to Texas Aug. 28, and began flying missions out of the Easterwood Airport, College Station, Texas, the following day.
“Launching operations within two hours from arriving to a deployment is just incredible,” said LoForti. “Within 45 minutes after launching, the 301st Rescue Squadron was hoisting survivors to safety.”
Within four days, the helicopter and Guardian Angel teams rescued 200 people, 21 dogs and 5 cats, while the 39th RQS crews transported 35 hurricane victims from Beaumont to Dallas, conducted 20 helicopter air-to-air refuelings that enabled helicopter and GA crews to remain on scene longer, and served as the airborne mission commander coordinating 16 rescue assets from six different agencies and providing sole direct communication for vital 911 calls.
“The work our team put forth is remarkable,” said LoForti. “What they accomplished doesn’t just happen. That happens because of the people who believe in what they do and work hard to stay current and qualified to perform the mission. You also need a support structure at home station to get us out the door. I’m so proud of everyone.”
Lt. Col. Michael Walsh, 301st RQS commander, noted that while the entire rescue effort was one for the books, watching the night crews overcome so many obstacles with much success was especially impressive. The 301st RQS was the only helicopter unit based out of College Station flying 24-hour operations.
From heights up to 180 feet above, “imagine low visibility, rain, 15-20-knot gusts, power lines everywhere and working the hoist, wearing night vision goggles for 10 hours straight,” said Walsh. “Despite the odds against them, they still made tons of rescues. This speaks to the high level of skill and experience we have on our team.”
The 308th RQS pararescuemen also found their recent swiftwater training was invaluable as they fought surging flood water during many of their rescues. While most of their searches ended in success, some circumstances proved grave.
On one of the night crew’s first shifts, they spent roughly two hours searching for two amateur boat rescuers who overturned when they hit a bridge in the surging flood waters.
“The police officer told us that on a normal day you look down from the bridge and it’s a good 45 feet to the top of the water,” recalled Joe Montero, 301st RQS special mission aviator, “at that point it was so high it was slapping the side of the bridge. There were four boaters in all. One made it onto the bridge, one got caught in a tree and unfortunately we were never able to locate the other two.”
With a diminishing gas tank and others in need of rescue, the crew was thanked for their effort and cleared to help other hurricane victims.
Montero, like many members of the Harvey team is a full timer; however, a portion of the team was made up of traditional reservists, whose civilian employers were understanding enough to let them take off of work on short notice with orders that reflected up to 30 days.
Chief Jospeh LaSata, Rockledge Fire Department and Police Department public safety director, said he was proud of the work that one of his firefighters, Senior Airman Davy Brinkmann, 301st RQS SMA, did during Hurricane Harvey.
“We’re extremely proud of Davy both for his efforts to keep our city safe as a fireman, but also when he’s called upon to serve our country in situations such as Harvey,” LaSata said. “It did us all proud to see him rescuing people from rooftops and just reaffirms what kind of quality employees we have here in the city.”
With a final day on alert status at College Station, the group headed home Sept. 3 only to find Hurricane Irma, a category 5 storm, headed their way.
“To roll from Harvey to Hurricane Evacuation to Irma operations is even more amazing,” said LoForti. “I’m honored to be a part of the 920th Rescue team.”