Navy, Air Force, Army, Coast Guard join forces for Ike rescues

by Capt. Nicholas J. Sabula
Air Force News Agency

LAKE CHARLES, La. (AFPN) — Navy helicopter rescue crews positioned here participated in a joint search and rescue effort Sept. 13 flying missions in response to Hurricane Ike’s Sept. 12 landfall on the Gulf Coast.

The Navy teams flew multiple sweeps over hard-hit areas of Louisiana and Texas looking for signs of people in need.

They joined rescue teams from the Air Force, Army and Coast Guard covering the devastated region with support from the air.

“We were teamed up with the Air Force and the Army, as well as Coast Guard assets all out of Ellington Field and Randolph Air Force Base (Texas), and the only other unit I know away from there was Patrick AFB (in Florida) providing HH-60 Pavehawks,” said Navy Lt. Jimmy Dalo, a SH-60F Seahawk helicopter pilot with Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron 15.

Lieutenant Dalo is part of a team out of Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla., that includes people from HS15, HS11 and HS 7. His unit provides support for domestic humanitarian relief along the gulf coast and was provided relief after hurricanes Katrina and Gustav.

The teams departed out of Lake Charles Regional Airport — about a 30 minute flight to the northeast part of Houston — and flew along the gulf coastline to Galveston, Texas.

“When we flew down, we did a sweep on the Galveston area, got gas and did a snake search on the way back,” said Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Victor Falck, an aviation warfare systems operator.

“We were in a four-helo form flight and we’d kind of spread out and fly over communities. Out here I would have been strictly the rescue swimmer, going down the hoist assisting anyone who needs assistance,” he said. “We brought rescue baskets, seats, direct deployment quick drops. That’s used for fast moving water where it’s kind of a get-in, get-out, grab a survivor quickly kind of situation.”

As the teams flew toward Galveston, they got a firsthand look at the devastation caused by the Category 2 hurricane packing 110 mph winds and massive amounts of water.

Petty Officer Falck said on the whole, the most affected areas observed were on the way to Galveston, rather than actually in Galveston.

“On the way over there is where I saw the worst,” Petty Officer Falck said. “The water had risen so much that it swept through, destroying barns and silos. I saw a lot of houses completely underwater. You could see some oil in the water as well. There was a lot of destruction, a lot of flooding, and a lot of cattle left high and dry.”

“You could see mostly the devastation caused by more-so the storm surge than the winds, so you had a lot of flooded out pasture lands and low-lying areas closer to the coastline,” said Lieutenant Dalo, who grew up in southern Florida and has dealt with hurricanes most of his life. “As we moved closer to Galveston, you could definitely see how the water level had wiped away most of the beach property. A little bit closer to Houston you could see how the city was mostly unaffected as infrastructure goes, but definitely the low-lying areas were affected by the storm surge.”

The team patrolled along the coastal region looking for any survivors or just people who might be in trouble, flying in at lower altitudes to determine if anyone in some of the smaller towns was affected.

“It looked like the prior call to evacuate the towns had pretty much been heeded by most people,” Lieutenant Dalo said. “We did have people waving at the helicopters but we didn’t have anyone who appeared to be in distress.”

“We saw one guy who we thought was trying to signal us, but he was just kind of waving at us; a support thing I guess,” Petty Officer Falck said.

Overhead, an Air Force E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system aircraft from the 552nd Air Control Wing at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., relayed tasking information to the joint teams based on calls from their command and control cell. The AWACS is assigned to the 331st Air Expeditionary Group at Randolph AFB supporting aerial search and rescue efforts by 1st Air Force people and aircraft.

Officials from the Joint Personnel Recovery Center at Tyndall AFB, Fla., field emergency calls from first responders in an area. The information is then relayed to the E-3 overhead and air battle managers serving on board the aircraft communicate the information to the rescue helicopter aircrews.

Lieutenant Dalo said flying these types of missions can be very similar to other operational requirements.

“For a rescue asset like us who are trained to do it both in a combat situation and also a domestic situation, it kind of almost falls in the same area: One: who am I talking to, and two: where am I going,” Lieutenant Dalo said. “And everything expands off of that. You can basically transform that tactic to anywhere in the world, no matter what the situation and kind of just build and plug-and-play as you go. In reality, it’s no different from me executing a hostile rescue than just hurricane relief, as long as I know where I’m going, who I’m talking to and that we have the skill sets to execute the rescue.”

Perhaps the best news of the day for the team conducting intense search and rescue missions was reflecting on not what the team had done, but what they had not done.

“Overall, we didn’t see anyone who needed rescuing,” Petty Officer Falck said.

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