Wednesday, March 1, 2006
Air Boss at the Dome
Jensen was to assume new duties in Washington as the U.S. Army National Guard's aviation operations and training branch chief at the Joint Readiness Center in early September. Instead, he spent four days heading an ad-hoc flight operations team coordinating activities around New Orleans as the flight operations officer at the downtown heliport at the Superdome, for what would become Task Force Eagle.
My reporting date for duty in Washington was 1 September. But Colonel Keeling [the state aviation officer for the Louisiana Guard] scooped me back up. On 27 August I was crossing the causeway over Lake Pontchartrain when I got a phone call from him telling me, "Come back and run flight operations for this storm." There are certain times in your life when you think you've reached a milestone and you think there's not anything you're going to do in your life that is so significant. This would turn out to be one of those situations.
On the afternoon of the day the storm hit, Katrina went through our facility at Building 35 at Jackson Barracks, the Louisiana National Guard's State Area Command Headquarters, and knocked out our comm. We were like a fighter swinging in the air.
That night, we evacuated on Johnboats to the levee south of the barracks, where aircraft could land. I got into the back of an aircraft with guys I used to command and headed for the Superdome. East of the 17th Street Canal, the city was all dark. West of it, it was all lit up. Right away we knew we had a bad situation. We would later learn the canal levee had been breeched.
We got to the Dome and were marshaled to an office complex inside its north side, where I joined Colonel Keeling. We walked through the Dome to the Joint Operations Center on the south side at ground level. The JOC relocated three times that night because of the rising floodwaters, finally ending up on the lower tier of the parking garage.
At daybreak the next day, it was quite obvious due to the extent of flooding in the city that rotary-wing aviation would be the center of gravity for relief efforts. Civilian medevac and law enforcement agency aircraft began arriving in earnest.
It was soon apparent that we had a significant safety issue with only one landing pad and no one controlling the separation of traffic.
There was a double-wide trailer on the south side of the heliport's landing pad and I made my way over there to take it over. I was greeted by Norm Umholtz, the heliport manager and a retired Navy senior master chief. His trailer had a commercial phone line, Internet access, a fax and copy machine and an operational generator. He was more than willing to yield control. For the next 10 days, it became known as Eagle Base.
I had conscripted several people for the flight operations team--two warrant officer (Black Hawk pilots and veterans of Vietnam and Operation Iraqi Freedom), a couple of Air Guardsmen, an Air Force captain (a Joint Stars pilot from Georgia) and a Marine Corps Cobra pilot. We immediately took charge of the heliport frequency and began performing tower operations.
We then quickly sketched out a traffic pattern that identified a landing direction and control points. I designated Xavier College, a prominent landmark a mile west of the Superdome, for visual holding. We would run copies of the traffic procedures out to landing aircraft that came in blind. When we ran out of copies, we'd run out with a sign with the heliport frequency on it and, when they checked in, we briefed them by radio.
Eagle Base and the airspace around it were saturated. At one point, we had three aircraft holding with altitude separation over Xavier College. Something had to be done to expand our landing capacity.
We removed all the light poles from the upper tier of the adjacent parking garage, commandeered a fork lift to move several cars there, then did the same for the lower tier. This opened up eight new landing spots on the upper tier and four on the lower tier. Two air traffic controllers from the USS Bataan arrived with their own radios. Now we had a tower frequency for controlling aircraft and another for missioning aircraft.
Before that, we just had one frequency and it was just like nonstop. You want to do flight-following, battle-tracking--not even close. On the first day, we did 300 sorties. The second day after the storm, we ran 500 sorties. John Holland, over on the roof at Tulane, was wearing me out. `Thirty more. I got 30 more.' We eventually gave him his own frequency.
On the third day after the storm, we flew 800 sorties with 130 aircraft from all branches of the military and from civilian and law enforcement operators. Then we could kind of feel the operational tempo shift. Crisis management transitioned to recovery. By the fourth day after the storm, we were "Ops Normal." We flew 1,500 sorties with 150 aircraft.
None of us knew each other. To do what we did and maximize the blade time with no incidents, it was just amazing to pull together like that.--As told to James T. McKenna