By Sgt. First Class Jeff TrothApril 24, 2009
FORT RILEY, Kan. - The snow fell. The snow melted. The Red River rose. The flooding began. The Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division's phone rang.
Record flooding was occurring in North Dakota and Minnesota and Forces Command wanted CAB to assist.
"We found out about the possibility of the mission on the morning of March 27," said Lt. Col. Christopher Prather, the task force commander for the helicopters going to North Dakota. "We issued a (warning) order that had us taking off as soon as possible the next day, so even though we didn't know what the package was we had the plan set."
The 1st Inf. Div. has a standard emergency relief package of four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from 3rd Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment, two Black Hawk air ambulances and two CH-47 Chinooks from 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment. The CAB coordinated with North Command, which is the military liaison with the Federal Emergency Management Agency during natural disasters, on what missions the task force might be called on to execute and refined what aircraft were needed for the mission.
The final plan called for two 3rd Bn., 1st Avn. Regt. Black Hawks and four 2nd Bn., 1st Avn. Regt. Chinooks. To increase the effectiveness of the helicopters and give the task force more flight time, three additional flight crews were included in the plan. With the plan finalized, the air and ground crews finished packing equipment they thought they might need at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., where the task force would call home for as long as it was needed.
"We had to think out of the box," said 1st Lt. Carl Fisher, a Black Hawk pilot, "and think of what we would need in a cold environment that would allow us to do whatever they needed us to do.
"We went to North Dakota to support the National Guard, because they are the first line response. We were there to provide them with anything that they needed, whether it be planning or flying personnel and supplies around the disaster area. We were ready to do whatever they needed us to do."
The air and ground crews knew the basics of what they might be called upon to do - from transporting stranded Americans to airlifting supplies such as sandbags, medicine, food and water - they had to ensure they were ready for whatever mission they were given.
"We brought two sets of nozzles for every aircraft that we can refuel, while the Chinook guys brought the hoses," said Spc. Shane Duncan, a refueler with 2nd Bn., 1st Avn. Regt. He was prepared to set up a remote refueling point out of the back of a Chinook so other aircraft could spend more time on recovery missions without having to fly all the way back to the base.
Although the warning order had gone out to the aviation battalions early in the day, some task force members did not find out they were going until that night.
Spc. Joshua Callahan, a Black Hawk crew chief, was notified around 10 p.m. he was going and had to be at the hangar in 11 hours for the flight.
"It wasn't much of a notice, but a lot of the missions we had in Iraq were last minute notifications also," Callahan said. "So we were able to get ready quickly."
"It did help that we had just returned from 15 months in Iraq," said Fisher. "It helped because we were already in the mindset of getting a mission with not quite as much time as you would like to plan and having to adjust on the fly. And, that is what we had to do here. Iraq was definitely good preparation for this."
While some of the crewmembers, who returned from Iraq in November and December, thought their combat tour helped prepare them to help out their fellow Americans, the task force commander disagreed.
"No, them being able to deploy for this mission had nothing to do with Iraq; it was because they are great Soldiers," Prather said. "They would have been able to do it with a tour in Iraq or not. They are motivated Soldiers who do what they need to do to complete their mission."
About 24 hours after the phone rang; the CAB had its first aircraft wheels up and heading north. The Black Hawks were off the ground but before the snow could get plowed from in front of the Chinook hangar a weather front came in and postponed their takeoff for a day.
In North Dakota the CAB Soldiers quickly settled into their accommodations, either barracks rooms or a gym, and started preparing for possible missions.
The helicopter maintainers put their tools and spare parts in hangars, while the pilots put together flight books with maps of the area and diagrams of helicopter landing pads at the local hospitals and emergency shelter locations.
"One thing we tried to do with our products was share whatever we had with the National Guard," said Fisher.
Fort Riley was the only post to send active duty Soldiers and helicopters to the effort, but they weren't alone at the Air Force base. South Dakota, Montana, Iowa and Wisconsin sent National Guard aviation support, as did the Coast Guard. Minot Air Force Base, more than 200 miles to the west sent Airmen to beef up the Grand Forks dining facility and to man the base shuttle buses.
"The Fort Riley helicopters gave us a tremendous evacuation capability and a substantial (search and rescue) capability as well," said Air Force Lt. Col. Jerry Anderson, aviation task force officer-in-charge for the flood relief operations at Grand Forks Air Force Base. "They gave us an incredible capability to reach back for additional assets in case a mass tragedy would have happened in the Fargo area."
Although the Soldiers were on the ground and ready for action there were no missions for them. Active duty units are by U.S. code Title 10 assets and can only be used in a state emergency when all National Guard and Reserve units are maxed out. But since the flooding was not as extreme as forecasted the Fort Riley crews were not called upon.
Although the Soldiers were looking forward to helping out in some way, they know that it was a good thing they didn't have any missions.
"We were not needed in the rescue and that means everyone was safe," said Duncan.
"I am very glad that we actually didn't do any flying in support of the flood relief," said Prather. "Because that means that it was good for the people, they were safe, and we weren't needed."
The Soldiers also knew their trip to North Dakota wasn't a waste.
"It is better to have the assets, us in this case, in place and not need them, then to not have the assets and need them," said Fisher.
"Just the fact that the Fort Riley crews were here," said Anderson, "provided a huge comfort factor for both the Guard and the people of North Dakota."