Helicopters defy Harvey havoc to rescue thousands
When hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on 25 August thousands of residents sought refuge on higher ground as rescue services from the coast guard, military and volunteer organisations streamed in to help with the evacuation.
Helicopter crews were among the first responders, with the first sortie deployed by the US Coast Guard Air Station Houston on 26 August, in a mid-storm assessment operation.
Although Harvey was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm it loitered over Texas, dropping 51 inches of rain in one area. At this point the evacuation and SAR effort intensified, becoming increasingly urgent as strong winds were replaced by rapidly rising flood waters in residential areas of Houston.
It is in these adverse conditions that helicopters demonstrate their unique capabilities, flying, hovering and landing in conditions that other aircraft would struggle or find impossible.
Large scale SAR operations rely on the long range endurance of aircraft like the AW139 to operate around the clock to pluck people (and often animals) stranded in the water or sheltering on rooftops for safety.
US Northern Command deployed 73 helicopters for the SAR and evacuation effort, alongside the US Coast Guard’s fleet of MH-65D and AW139 helicopters and HH-60s deployed by the Air National Guard.
Singaporean CH-47 Chinooks also participated. The four Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) aircraft were deployed from the Peace Prairie detachment in Texas, arriving on 31 August to assist with disaster relief operations.
The Chinooks transported evacuees and delivered vital equipment and supplies, working alongside three Chinooks from 2nd Battalion 501st Aviation Regiment which, among other things, was responsible for providing emergency hay bales to stranded herds of cattle.
As the SAR and evacuation operations are wound down and the flood waters begin to recede the helicopter teams returned to their bases. However, they are unlikely to rest for long as preparations are under way for hurricane Irma which is expected to make landfall in Florida at the end of the week.