Not Just a Job for First Responders
To Protect and Serve
By Tim Kern
“Nobody had ever heard of Harris County until Hurricane Harvey hit,” says Lt. Don E. Plant Jr., Homeland Security Command tactical response commander and chief pilot. The county encompasses all of Houston and its suburbs, home to 4.5 million people.
“Well, they have heard of us now,” Plant says, commenting on the area’s rotorcraft operators and their spirited response to the record-breaking storm. “Sheriff Ed Gonzales managed dozens of governmental units and organizations, plus hundreds of volunteers. There was great support from some of the commercial operators, as well.”
Similar stories emerged in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, where first responders also saved people, property, and pets — and again, rotorcraft made it possible.
Hurricane Harvey’s geography and population impact were the largest of the three hurricanes, and because that storm hit first, its story is the soonest available. Some of Harvey’s stories, typical of the quiet heroism that happens out of the spotlight, are chronicled here.
Harris County covers 1,777 square miles and has more than 4 million inhabitants, of which 656 square miles and half the population are in Houston proper. Southwest of Houston is Fort Bend County, which covers 855 square miles and is home to another 750,000 people. To the northeast are Jefferson County’s 250,000 residents and its largest city, Beaumont (population 120,000). All these areas, and more, were devastated by Hurricane Harvey.
Chief Pilot Kyle Evans of the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office Air Support Division has flown in this area for 33 years. “We get into the air as much as we can,” he says. “It’s up to the availability of personnel and equipment, as much as they need. We perform the usual police operation functions such as looking for missing persons or suspects and helping direct ground operations; it’s primarily observation.”
In addition to Evans, the Air Support Division is made up of Deputies Michael Deutsch and Mark Foster, and Officer Tim Edison of the Sugar Land Police Department. “Without those guys, the Fort Bend Air Support Unit could not have provided the level of help and support to the visiting helicopter units. They are a great bunch of guys that will help at any time. They make us all look good,” said Evans.
Like so many things, a disaster looks different on television. “We would fly people from the command staff and drainage departments to give them a firsthand perspective of the devastation,” Evans says. “It looks different from the sky — there’s water in every direction.”
Fort Bend County’s Bell OH-58 Kiowas aren’t suitable for lift work. “Fortunately, with Harvey, we didn’t have to do any lift work,” Evans says, because other helicopter units were deployed for that purpose. What the Kiowa is best at, in civilian as well as its military role, is observation.
“We would get a report of a submerged car, or we’d find one. Then we’d help rescuers get to it. We looked for the best ways in and out, to help stranded victims, and to find people who needed to be evacuated,” he says. “Just being overhead, we helped deter the criminal element.”
The fact that Evans is a native Houstonian with more than 40 years of law enforcement experience in the area was invaluable to the volunteers and other units that responded to the Houston area in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
“We had maybe a dozen helicopters respond very early, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection,” Evans says. “These crews weren’t familiar with local airports or local airspace. We spent a lot of time helping them keep their hoist operations going.
“Their smartphone GPS systems and apps didn’t help with the TFRs and other airspace,” says Evans. “Some had minor maintenance problems. My guys and I helped them work out those problems, got their aircraft to the right people, and got them the right equipment. Private operators showed up, offered their time, and offered their machines.”
It wasn’t long before the Texas Air National Guard (TXANG) came in, and the 36th Combat Aviation Brigade arrived. “They were from 10 different states. Lt. Col. Jose Reyes of the TXANG did a fantastic job,” says Evans. “There were no incidents, no hurt feelings. When you get all these Type A personalities together, then add a crisis and hot rainy weather, it can cause a difficult working environment. But Reyes did a fantastic job.”
When the chips are down, everybody’s your neighbor. “Everyone was willing to help,” Evans says. “Without them, we’d still be looking for people. We reciprocate, too. Our agency aircraft are available to anybody in the county, even outside the county, if they need them.”
They spent the days in their leaky hangars, waiting for crews to need something. And even the local residents came to help. “The people from TXANG were astonished at the locals’ generosity,” Evans says. “They brought us water and snacks. A couple days, I’d run until I needed fuel, and didn’t even get out of the helicopter. Lots of guys worked like that.”
Evans was surprised by everyone’s positive attitude. “Nobody complained, even when I was cranky. Anything you asked them to do, they did. If you have to respond to a [horrible] event, it’s good to be surrounded by excellent people.”
Evans gave some other examples of how helicopters saved the day, in addition to saving human lives. “It’s hard to get your head wrapped around how many things got done,” he says.
“Over in Jefferson County, there were hundreds of cows on little islands created by the flood, stranded with no feed. The U.S. Army showed up with Chinooks, flew out to these cows, and dropped them some hay.”
These are the types of things you just can’t do with an airplane. “And you can’t hoist people into an airplane, either,” Evans says.
Disaster — necessity — spurs accommodation. “They were using dump trucks and boats to rescue people. But a person who’s really sick shouldn’t be bouncing around for an hour trying to get to a hospital. You can’t do that type of mission with a school bus — ‘Here, hold your IV bag while we drive through the flood’ — they won’t make it in a wheeled vehicle. The only solution is a helicopter.”
Some new equipment helped, too. “Before the equipment upgrade, we would be assigned a location, an intersection, or an address,” Evans says. “This year, we had Churchill Navigation. With the new mapping, we could find streets that weren’t even visible before. We could never have found addresses when the water was up to the eaves of the roof. So if somebody called from their attic, I could direct a boat with a chop saw right to their house to get them out.”
Sgt. Kurt M. Overby, a pilot with the Houston Police Department’s Homeland Security Command Air Support Division, noted that early estimates in Texas showed that Hurricane Harvey put more than 500,000 vehicles under water, causing roughly $180 billion in property damage.
Repairs and lessons learned from Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001 helped save public buildings during Harvey. “The bottom of the Texas Medical Center went underwater in 2001, knocking out power and destroying records,” Overby says. “In the rebuild, they installed these huge flood doors, like the locks on a canal, and most everything stayed dry. They had little damage this time in the Theater District, which was devastated by Tropical Storm Allison’s flooding. They learned. We’ll learn from this, too.”
Houston Police Department Chief Pilot and CFII Larry Kroesche concurred. “They’re now looking at some mandatory buyouts in the floodplain,” he said. “They can’t just keep building there and then getting flooded.”
Kroesche and Overby have nine helicopters — eight MD 500s and a Bell 412EP — that can be equipped with a hoist, a bucket, or other equipment. “We use [the Bell] for everything from observation to SWAT deployment. Usually, it’s set up for search and rescue. But when Harvey hit, our mission changed as conditions dictated,” Kroesche says.
“We did assessment flights with the chief of police and mayor. Houston Fire Department technical rescue specialists were on board the Bell 412EP as part of the search and rescue crew. We flew a lot of assessment flights to determine where to put boats in, where people needed help, or where rescue from rooftops or balconies was required.”
The Houston Police Department Air Support hangar acted as a distribution hub for relief efforts for the far-eastern Texas counties. Overby was grateful that the military brought in some heavies, as well. “Six Chinook and three Black Hawk helicopters loaded there with supplies and food and flew to football stadiums in the affected areas,” he says.
Giving Relief to the Relievers
“Some of the air traffic control personnel at Hobby and Intercontinental [airports] had been on duty for 48 hours. They couldn’t get relieved,” Kroesche says. “We picked up their relief and got the exhausted controllers out. Aircrews all over town couldn’t get to their ships. We brought them to work. Luckily, our helicopters were in just a little water. Skids were covered. But crews couldn’t get to the roads to the airport or out of their neighborhoods.”
The communications controls were thought to be secured well outside of town, but it was found that the communications hub was taking on water and a crucial key was needed to get the generator up and running to secure comms for the entire county. Overby explains, “The flight crew of the Bell 412EP flew into our command and delivered the key technical personnel who were able to keep the comms up and running. We would have lost all command in 30 more minutes.”
As the initial rain let up, criminals came out. “No police force can handle all the looting, plus all the other things a police department has to do in an emergency,” Kroesche says. “We flew several federal agents along with a constable to various spots in the flooded Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Silsbee areas to swear in approximately 50 federal agents as local law enforcement.”
Kroesche praised the hordes of volunteers. “They came from everywhere — a former Army ranger and three of his ranger buddies (one with a combat amputation to his leg) came from Tennessee, hundreds of boats from even a thousand miles away — everybody came to help. And of course, we had to know what to do with them all. The military operations were controlled from AWACS [a Boeing 707 equipped as an airborne warning and control system]; we coordinated through the Coast Guard as they talked to the guys overhead.”
Overall, Kroesche says, “We learned a lot. We had warning, sure, but nobody can be ready for four or five feet of rain in one day’s time. It was a logistical nightmare, but it actually worked pretty smoothly. Recovery will take a year or more, but we’ll come back. The people here, they’re resilient.”
Harold “Ed” Aycock was watching the local news of Hurricane Harvey. They were showing the unbelievable devastation from wind damage, tornados, and a year’s worth of extremely heavy rain in a couple days. Aycock says, “There were cars completely submerged, houses with water up the roof, and people being boated and rescued out of deep flood waters, carrying only a few essential items of value they could grab before being evacuated,” Aycock says.
He didn’t wait to be asked to help. “As a professional pilot, I knew I could make a contribution to aerial efforts,” Aycock says. “I called my boss, Russell Gordy, and asked permission to use his helicopter. Without hesitation, he said, ‘Absolutely, but be careful.’ He also wanted me to spread the word that that his gun store, Gordy and Sons, had 100 pairs of duck hip waders he wanted to give to first responders.”
Gordy says, “These are our people. It was a horrible time for Houston, and we wanted to do whatever we could. Ed volunteered to fly; we were happy to volunteer the helicopter.”
A couple long days passed before Aycock could navigate flooded roads to reach Gordy’s R44 at David Wayne Hooks Memorial Airport (KDWH), located in Tomball, 23 miles north of Houston. His wife, Tiffany, accompanied him, managing planning and logistics. “We were ready to pitch in any way we could,” says Aycock. “We called the Red Cross, FEMA, and several local agencies. But we got the same answer: ‘We would love you to help, we just do not know how right now.’”
The Aycocks continued to the airport, determined to help.
“As we pulled into the airport, I flagged down the Harris County Air Support deputies and a Tomball police officer and asked if anyone needed a helicopter. The Tomball PD officer spoke up that they did need help, and I said, ‘Let’s go.’”
Lt. Plant from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office assigned Aycock to assist the city of Tomball and multiple locations throughout Harris County. “The next several days were some of the most rewarding and heartbreaking days I have experienced in my 15 years of flying,” says Plant. “Rewarding because I positively contributed to people in need, but heartbreaking, seeing all the devastation up close and personal.”
Aycock’s flying included anything and everything. “The missions varied so much from day to day, you truly could not make a plan of action; more a plan of reaction. If my phone rang and someone needed help, I flew, and for the most part it did not matter what it was,” he says. “There were times that I was flying county and city officials to survey storm and flood damage, transferring people from shelters to medical facilities, or just getting people close enough to their house to get pets that were left behind.
“The Harris County Air Support did an amazing job of distributing supplies to victims, such as pallets of water, food, clothes, and dog and cat food,” Aycock says. “They had 3,000 pounds of insulin that needed to be delivered to a hospital in need. These items were crucial, especially since the water supply in Jefferson County was destroyed by flooding and no running water was available for weeks.
“On Labor Day morning I received a call from Chaz with the Cajun Navy,” Aycock continues. “The Port Arthur Police Department needed supplies to help with their recovery but were not able to get to them from Houston because I-10 was impassable.
“People were flying before the hurricane had even moved off to the east, landing in places in and around Houston you never thought you would, all the while dealing, working a temporary flight restriction,” Aycock says. His plan: “All the TFRs became complicated, so I referred the gentlemen to Lt. Plant to handle.”
Aycock says he made many memories in the wake of the disaster. “Hurricane Harvey was devastating in so many ways, but it seemed to bring the best out in almost everyone. It showed people helping one another, people they had never met and will most likely never see again.”
Aycock saw a need, had the tools, and stepped up, as did many volunteers whose stories may never be told.
“I for one feel very blessed to have been able to help in ways others could not,” Aycock says. “Not everyone can fly a helicopter, and in times like these, it was an invaluable tool. In the end, it all came down to helping people that needed it. No money. No politics. Just helping people.”
Tim Kern is an aviation writer whose work has appeared in more than 50 aviation publications. He is a private pilot and holds an MBA in finance and operations from Northwestern University. He has extensive experience in machining and both motorcycle and auto racing, and was CEO of an airplane engine company in the early 1990s. Kern is the only journalist to complete the ALEA Accident Investigation course or to have earned NBAA’s CAM (Certified Aviation Manager) certification.