In Praise of Helicopters: Saving New Orleans

Within aviation circles, the number of mostly good-natured jokes thrown at helicopter pilots over the decades seem endless: "Helicopters don't fly, they're just so ugly the Earth repels them;" "A helicopter is a collection of parts in loose formation;" "Helicopters are machines that create lift by beating the air into submission."

But no one has been joking since Katrina came to the Crescent City.

We've all seen the images on TV -- especially in the first days of mass confusion and the wider embarrassment of paralyzed governmental response on the ground. There in the air over the flooded, ruined parishes of New Orleans was a cadre of young United States Coast Guard professionals -- helicopter pilots and crewmen trained to rescue fellow humans from the pitching decks of imperiled ships in the worst of conditions, laboring almost around the clock to help.

Those familiar with the true story that led to the book and the film "The Perfect Storm" are acutely aware of the immense dedication of these outstanding Americans to lifesaving, and most of us who live along coastal areas of the nation have at least glimpsed the "Coasties" flying past in one of their rotary wing machines. But seldom, if ever, have we as a people been privileged to watch such aeronautical professionalism and boundless dedication as we were in the first four days following the disaster labeled Katrina.

Hour by hour, pilots held their Dauphin or Blackhawk helicopters in rock-steady hovers as their crewmen lowered rescue baskets and raised up desperate survivors one by one. Hour by hour they worked, pausing only to refuel -- their crews at times needing to be all but ordered to sleep and comply with the crew duty limitations (which dedicated military people tend to disregard in time of crisis).

The Coast Guard raced tirelessly to save as many as possible, maintaining its superlative safety procedures to make sure the crews and rescuees made it back every time. Several days into the disaster, National Guard helicopter crews joined the desperate effort, using less well-equipped HU-1 "Hueys" and very basic "forest penetrator" seats developed for Vietnam to pull rescue crewmen hugging one or two survivors up time after time.

And by the end of the week, the skies over New Orleans were a beehive of rotary wing activity, with craft as large as the huge Skycrane or rotor Boeing Chinooks or large Sikorsky H-53s (the same type used as Marine One for presidential transport) along with most every other helicopter model in the Coast Guard, Army and Navy inventory.

Some even worked to do what seemed impossible: plug the holes in the levees. Others worked to evacuate previously abandoned survivors from the squalid mess that was the Morial Convention Center, and throughout it all, the Coast Guard continued to pull people off of imperiled roofs.

A Dream Come True

Sikorsky.

The mention of that name is very important, because the gentle and somewhat shy Russian émigré who graced the U.S. with his presence in 1919 was the genius who created the ability to hang in the sky like some mechanical angel of mercy. Sikorsky refused to leave the challenge of vertical flight alone over a long career (see an excellent biography at http://www.sikorskyarchives.com/siksky2.html).

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