The response of the Arkansas National Guard's aviation team with flooding in the Fort Smith area, and a recent helicopter crash near Ozark, were the focus of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's most recent weekly address.
During the flooding of the Arkansas River in May and June, the aviation team flew more than 100 hours of missions, which included hay drops, sandbag drops and reconnaissance. During the late spring floods the aviators assisted in three rescue missions in a two-week period. The governor, who is the commander in chief of the Arkansas National Guard, said the missions "put their training, skills and stamina to the test."
The first mission started about 10 a.m. on May 26 as the Arkansas River was rising rapidly. Lt. Col. 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 Barling.
The current was battering the building with logs and other debris. Officials weren’t certain the building could withstand the pounding, the governor explained. The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management contacted Hutchinson for authority to start the rescue. Ladd alerted Chief Warrant Officer 4 Cole Brewer, and Sgts. Johnathan Watson and Anthony Sellew. They met at Camp Robinson and were at Lock 13 by 11:30 a.m.
The rescue went smoothly, the governor explained, using the UH-72 Lakota helicopter equipped with a rescue hoist. Watson and Sellew rode the cable the 120 feet down to the roof and rode up with each of the Corps employees in about 12 minutes.
The second rescue, in the early morning hours on June 3, was the most challenging, Hutchinson said. 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, Sgt. Nate Smith and, once again, Sgts. Sellew and Watson.
The crew fought fog, wind, and dense foliage as the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter hovered over the site of the crash, Hutchinson said. 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. 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.
Piker 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 governor said. 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 Cpt. 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 found the hiker, who was dehydrated and suffered minor injuries.
"When I approve a mission, I am expressing my confidence in the leadership of Gen. 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," Hutchinson said. "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 Gen. Berry and the soldiers and airmen who work for him."