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Hurricane Charley

Guard can airlift much more than it needs to

The helicopters are ready, but Charley, unlike Andrew, left most roads open, and trucks can haul bigger loads.

Published August 20, 2004

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The huge Chinook helicopter arrived Thursday at Charlotte County Airport, only to find the runway jammed with semitrailer trucks hauling tons of goods for Hurricane Charley victims.

The helicopter managed to drop off four pallets of water.

But as the $20-million Chinook pulled away, the water seemed a rather insignificant drop in the ocean of relief rolling into the airport by ground each day.

In some ways, the delivery sums up the Army National Guard's aerial operation in the relief effort: impressive capabilities and soldiers eager to help, but a role that so far seems to underutilize its vast resources.

Shortly after Charley plowed through southwest Florida, the Army National Guard transformed its outpost at the Hernando County Airport south of Brooksville into a major staging area for aerial hurricane relief. It shipped in 26 aircraft and 226 soldiers from six states.

Aside from six Chinooks - the massive twin-rotor helicopters with a cargo hold as big as a school bus - the guard brought in 14 smaller Black Hawk helicopters and an assortment of other craft, all adept at delivering supplies to hard-to-reach areas in short order.

After Hurricane Andrew, when many roads were blocked with debris, that was important.

But Charley didn't close many roads, despite devastating buildings and uprooting trees.

So now the guard's helicopter fleet finds itself flying into areas where semitrailers - slower moving but capable of hauling much bigger loads - have already been. Some soldiers, eager as they are to help, wonder if their services really are needed.

"The question you are asking is the one we are beating around ourselves: Are we doing any good?" said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jeffrey Reep, who piloted two missions into the Charlotte airport Thursday. "That's not our call."

Maj. Michael Rung, a guardsman trying to explain the airlift capabilities to civilians running the emergency relief operations from Lakeland, said the helicopters could move much larger cargos, and make more runs if asked.

But aside from a rush delivery of baby formula Wednesday, most of the drops so far have been routine water runs to the road-accessible Charlotte airport. At most, the airlift accounts for 10 percent of the overall relief deliveries, Rung said.

Reep's Chinook - one of only three in the air Thursday due to the lack of need - consumed 1,500 gallons of jet fuel to deliver roughly the same amount of water.

"You have to do some rationalization there," Rung said.

Still, the guardsmen say they are eager to help at home after fighting in Afghanistan.

"This is what the Guard is intended to do," said Scott Sheroky, a flight engineer from Pennsylvania. "This is a good mission."

Ed Blantz, another Pennsylvania flight engineer, said it is much better to be helping people than trying to kill them.

"Anything you can get to them is going to help," Blantz said.

[Last modified August 20, 2004, 01:55:09]

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