By 1st Lt. Leanna LitschAugust 22, 2017
OKLAHOMA CITY -- It's common for Guardsmen to grow up in a unit and stay there for most of their career. This uniqueness brings a plethora of opportunities for connections to be made on the civilian side. Need an electrician? There's probably one in your unit. Need someone in Information Technology? Look among your ranks. Need a news station helicopter pilot? You can find three at the Oklahoma Army National Guard's aviation facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Those three Guardsmen are Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jon Welsh, pilot for Oklahoma City's KFOR News Channel 4, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Will Kavanagh, pilot for Tulsa's KOTV News On 6, and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Chase Rutledge, pilot for Oklahoma City's KOCO News Channel 5.
One of the many unique traits of being in the National Guard is the civilian aspect. Most Guard members drill one weekend per month, conduct a two-week annual training and also deploy overseas. Unlike active duty, Guardsmen usually hold two roles: a civilian and a service member.
"We flew in Iraq together and now we're flying in Oklahoma City together doing different things, and we're in the same unit flying a different helicopter for the National Guard," Rutledge said.
Though the three pilots compete on the civilian side, they are teammates in the Guard by serving in the same unit; Detachment 1, Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 140th Security and Support Aviation Regiment.
THE THREE PILOTS
Jon Welsh, of Moore, Oklahoma, joined the OKARNG as an infantryman before transitioning to a helicopter pilot. He has flown for News Channel 4, in Oklahoma City covering a multitude of stories, including the May 20, 2013 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma.
"I kind of refer to my job as on-demand services," Welsh said, correlating the similarities of being 'Always Ready' with the Guard. "They want you ready to go when they want you to go."
Will Kavanagh, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has flown for News On 6 in Tulsa, Oklahoma since 2009. Like Welsh, Kavanagh also enlisted into the OKARNG as an infantryman before transitioning to a helicopter pilot. Kavanagh has flown hundreds of major news stories in Tulsa, but he also fills in for his sister station, KWTV News 9 in Oklahoma City.
"I think my proudest moments aren't the most memorable on camera," Kavanagh said as he discussed working with local authorities and informing the public.
Chase Rutledge, originally from Tecumseh, Oklahoma, joined the OKARNG to pay for college and a few years later became a helicopter pilot. Compared to the other two pilots, Rutledge's position is a little different, as he works full-time for the Oklahoma Army National Guard supporting local, state and federal agencies, and is a part-time pilot for KOCO News Channel 5.
"I love doing what I do," Rutledge said. "It's the best of both worlds."
THE COMPETITION AND CAMARADERIE
"There's really no competition; I'm always better," Rutledge said with a smirk. "80 percent of the time, I'm there every time, first."
On the civilian side, Welsh, Rutledge, and Kavanagh compete against each other within the same news market. The objective for each? To get to the story first.
"I thought you were a pilot," Welsh joked with Kavanagh after using tail winds to beat Kavanagh to a story. "Shouldn't you look at winds?"
"That's about the only time he'll beat me," Kavanagh replied. "With the help of mother nature."
Though each pilot's news helicopter has different capabilities, all three have successfully won the coverage race at least once, providing an open door of friendly jabs toward one another.
"Are you working for the History Channel today?" That's a common joke between all three pilots, meant to poke fun at whoever shows up last when covering a news story.
"That is the pilot mentality," said Kavanagh, referring to their competitive spirit. "We're Type-A people. If we're not competing, we're sleeping."
Through that competitiveness lies an unbroken brotherhood and bond that stems from their years in the Guard together, including a deployment to Iraq.
"There's just that camaraderie and bond and professionalism that we have toward each other," said Welsh. "You don't really have to worry about offending somebody or stepping on their toes because we've known each other for almost a decade now and flown together in the Guard pretty much the whole time."
"Through all that, the humor and razzing, we do learn and we do bond," said Kavanagh. "I'm really happy to have those guys out there with me flying, not only civilian, but also in the military."
"We take care of each other, that's for sure," said Rutledge. "I try to get in [Welsh's] shot as much as I can though."
Although the competition between the three is unwavering, the three share the same goal: keep the citizens of Oklahoma informed, minute by minute and second by second, especially during times of severe weather or other dangers.
INTO THE STORMS, THE FLOODS AND THE FLAMES
With Oklahoma's tendency to host tornadoes, floods, and fires, the three pilots stay busy, whether in their civilian or Guard role. Though each role hones in on different objectives, both play an essential part during and after a situation, such as a natural disaster.
"In the Guard when you have storms you fly away from them, and for the station we fly toward them, and really close," Rutledge said.
When disaster strikes, often times the National Guard is called in to assist by their state's Office of Emergency Management, whether it's to provide equipment, personnel, or both. The Guard supplements local authorities where they fall under the direction of an Incident Commander, who is typically a civilian in charge.
Welsh, Rutledge, and Kavanagh have all responded to a natural disaster on both the Guard and civilian side. While filling their roles as news helicopter pilots, their main response to a natural disaster is before it strikes and during.
One of those disasters was the May 20, 2013 tornado that ripped through Welsh's hometown of Moore, Oklahoma, killing 25 people, including seven children and injuring 377 others. The damage total was $2 billion, and the effects are still seen today.
Welsh was in the sky before the tornado developed, capturing each moment from the tornado's conception near Newcastle, Oklahoma, to the far east side of Moore.
"This is right at my house," Welsh said on air.
For Welsh, the situation amassing beneath him was more real than anything else. Not only was he concerned about his community being destroyed, but for his family as well. The storm developed around the time the school day ended, and Welsh immediately called his wife to make sure their family took shelter.
But no matter the situation, Welsh had a job to do.
"I picked [the cell phone] up, haven't gotten a text yet, and I've got to go back and report," Welsh said as he explained the moment the tornado headed for his home. "You can't really fixate or get worried about one thing, you just have to keep moving the pots around so none of them boil so that you can really achieve what you're meant to do."
Welsh won awards for his coverage and calm demeanor that day, but more importantly, he saved countless lives.
"You meet people at the fair or wherever else and they're like, 'Hey man, you saved my life,' and I'm like 'Man I didn't save anybody's life. I didn't pick you up, you weren't injured,' and he goes, 'I was listening to you on the radio and I was heading down Eastern, and you said it was coming right here so I turned around. If it wouldn't have been for you, I wouldn't have known,'" Welsh explained.
As Oklahoma Guardsmen rolled in with personnel and equipment to assist local authorities, Welsh flew above his National Guard brothers and sisters, providing coverage of relief efforts for days and weeks following.
Tornadoes aren't the only worry for Oklahoma. The Spring of 2015 ended an Oklahoma drought that flooded parts of the state. For Rutledge, the floods provided an opportunity to speak over the air for the first time as the back-up helicopter pilot for KOCO News Channel 5.
"It was the biggest flooding story in Oklahoma," Rutledge said. "I was really honored to be able to cover that."
Rutledge's coverage from the air enabled local authorities and other agencies to establish passable routes, assess damage, and begin relief efforts and reconstruction of damaged areas.
This year, Oklahoma's wildfire season set records after untamed flames burned thousands of acres across the state, stretching into Kansas. In January of this year while flying for News 9, Kavanagh soared above the flames alongside his brother's in uniform while they dropped water buckets on a large wildfire near Edmond, Oklahoma.
Because of his experience in the Guard, Kavanagh was able to explain the process of dropping water on wildfires while on air; a process unknown to many who haven't served in that particular position.
"It's almost instructional to me the way I report," Kavanagh said. "That then makes people go, 'Okay I understand why they're doing that.'"
"The biggest thing that has helped out by being in the Guard is during wildfire season, because you know pretty much everybody that flies [water] buckets," Welsh said, referring to UH-60 Black Hawks. "You can really work together as a team, even though I'm still in the Guard but today I'm being paid by Channel 4, we're still helping Guard guys achieve the mission."
Having the skills to multitask is key for these three pilots. While in an aircraft, there is a swarm of responsibilities a pilot has to balance simultaneously, from wheels up to wheels down. With the experience they've gained from flying for the Oklahoma National Guard, the three are better prepared to fly for their news station.
"You have to make quick decisions quite a bit," Rutledge said. "Being able to balance all of that, talk on the radio to other aircraft, talk live while you're doing the broadcast, and then also pay attention to your flying; having to balance all that is difficult and the Army has really prepared me for that."
During his annual training earlier this Summer, Rutledge came across a distress call while flying an OKARNG UH-72 Lakota helicopter near Muskogee, Oklahoma. Rutledge spoke to the pilot moments before the crash, and the training mission immediately turned into a real-world situation. Rutledge and his crew landed at the scene to assist the pilot until emergency crews arrived.
"Anytime there's a real-world mission and we're doing a training mission, then that becomes the priority," Rutledge explained. "In a real-world emergency, we make the decision, and we did that day."
For all three, the experience and discipline gained from the Oklahoma National Guard has helped them develop into better pilots, giving them the ability to perform at their very best in all situations.
"There's a lot of things the Army has given me that makes me better in my civilian career than I would've been without it," Kavanagh said. "The discipline to stay to standard and not to try to deviate from the standard or what we know is acceptable in aviation."
With all the joking between the three pilots aside, what these three men do for the community, in both roles, is immeasurable.
"Anytime you get a chance to pay back your community, it's very rewarding so that's one of the reasons I joined the Guard, because we have an actual stateside mission," Welsh said. "I enjoy the aspect of getting to help people out."
"The things I'm most proud about is when I work with police, fire," Kavanagh explained. "At my discretion, I'll put a police officer or fire department personnel and we go on people searches."
"I love being able to give the information to Oklahomans and let them know what's going on before it happens," Rutledge said. "There have been times where I've gone from reporting the tornadoes, to putting on my National Guard uniform and going and jumping in the National Guard helicopter and working it from the air in a different platform."
In all, Oklahomans can take comfort in knowing that these three pilots have their eyes in the sky, as both a citizen and a Soldier.