Today I’d like to highlight the work of the Arkansas Army National Guard’s Aviation Team.
As governor, I have the responsibility of also being commander in chief of the Arkansas National Guard. When I approve a mission, I am expressing my confidence in the leadership of General Mark Berry, my Adjutant General, and his 10,000 soldiers and airmen. I know the Guard will do its utmost to make the mission a success. That was the case in late spring when the Aviation Team assisted in three rescue missions in a two-week period that put their training, skills, and stamina to the test.
The team members were among many National Guardsmen who participated in various missions during the Flood of 2019. The Aviation Team flew more than 100 hours of missions, which included hay drops, sandbag drops, and reconnaissance.
The first mission started about 10 a.m. on May 26 as the Arkansas River was rising rapidly. Lieutenant Colonel Eric Ladd received word that two members of the Army Corps of Engineers were stranded on a building at Lock 13 at Trimble Lock and Dam near Fort Smith.
The current was battering the building with logs and other debris. Officials weren’t certain the building could withstand the pounding.
The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management contacted me for authority to start the rescue. Lieutenant Colonel Ladd alerted Chief Warrant Officer 4 Cole Brewer, Sergeant Johnathan Watson, and Sergeant Anthony Sellew. They met at Camp Robinson and were at Lock 13 by 11:30 a.m.
The rescue went smoothly using the UH-72 Lakota helicopter equipped with a rescue hoist. Twice, Sergeant Watson, with the expertise of hoist operator Sergeant Sellew, rode the cable the 120 feet down to the roof and rode up with each of the Corps employees. The entire rescue took 12 minutes.
The second rescue, occurring in the early morning hours on June 3, was the most challenging. A sight-seeing helicopter had crashed on Mulberry Mountain in Franklin County. The crew consisted of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Spencer Robinson, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Chris Converse, Sergeant Watson, Sergeant Smith, and Sergeant Sellew. The crew fought fog, wind, and dense foliage as the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter hovered over the site of the crash. Sergeant Smith attempted to go down the cable with the rescue basket, but the rotor wash created by the chopper’s blades spun him so wildly that hoist operator Sergeant Watson pulled him back up to the helicopter out of concern for Sergeant Watson’s safety. Sergeant Watson then dropped the rescue basket to the ground by cable.
One of the rescuers on the ground was National Guardsman Micah Piker, who had responded to the accident in his civilian job as a Franklin County EMT. But he transitioned into his National Guard role when it became apparent they would have to rescue one of the tourists with the helicopter’s hoist, and the crew needed his help on the ground.
He strapped the man into the basket and then lay atop the man so that he could pin his arms and prevent further injury from the trees he had to go through. The rescue saved the man’s life; the pilot and two other passengers perished in the crash.
The final mission was a search for a hiker from Texas who was lost for several days in the Ouachita Mountains near Mena. The man had texted his mother on June 1 that he was lost. The National Guard crew flew out on June 7. Within 30 minutes of starting the search over the mountains, the UH-72 crew consisting of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Richard Rogers, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Matthew McMullen, and Captain Winston Cox had picked up a flashing light. The crew shared its location with the ground crews. An hour later, the searchers on the ground had found the hiker, who was dehydrated and suffered minor injuries.
The helicopter crews’ training, skill, and courage ensured success with every mission. That’s how things usually go with the Arkansas National Guard. We are fortunate to have General Berry and the soldiers and airmen who work for him.