Guard unit ‘ready, locked, loaded’ to support victims of Hurricane Florence

PHOTO PROVIDED Taylor Gray, Chief Warrant Officer Two of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, prepares a UH60 Blackhawk for flight on a Myrtle Beach tarmac. Gray is a part of a state program to send aid to the state, which has been dealing with ever rising flood waters since Hurricane Florence landed on its shores.

Flooding coming off the heels of Hurricane Florence is expected to increase 1 inch every hour in South Carolina until Tuesday, and as the waters continue to strand citizens, a Williamsport native is one of many National Guard members helping them get to safe ground.

Taylor Gray, chief warrant officer 2 with the state Army National Guard, is one of several helicopter pilots and over 25 members of his unit who have been sent to South Carolina to assist people there as part of the state Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team program, or PA-HART.

Working 12- to 14-hour days, the team transports civilian rescue technicians and equipment within about a 30-mile radius of South Carolina just off of the coastline, according to Master Sgt. George Roach, public affairs officer. Pennsylvania was the first state to provide a HART program, which is a partnership between the Army National Guard, the state Fish and Boat Commission, the state Emergency Management Agency and credentialed civilian rescue technicians to form trained aerial search and rescue teams designed to assist in disasters in and out of the state.

“We basically have a civilian department of waterways conservation officers … that have a program where they can volunteer to become rescue swimmers,” Roach said. “The civilian agency provides the rescue swimmers and they team up with our National Guard and we provide military assets. Together they form this unique mission where they fly and drop into arduous situations and help people who need water and medical rescue.”

Gray has been vital to the program as a UH60 Blackhawk pilot since Sept. 12 when his team arrived in South Carolina. His unit is on call for anything from search and rescue missions to performing overwatch for boat crews.

“It’s gone very well,” Gray said. “The South Carolina responders are very happy to have us here and everyone has been grateful.”

Different missions call for different equipment and the team has two helicopters that can cover a variety of needs: a UH60 Blackhawk and a CH-47F Chinook.

The Blackhawk, which Gray pilots, is used for smaller missions when a large amount of people don’t need to be rescued at once, Roach said. The Blackhawk also has the capability to hover over the target because the force of air that pushes from the propeller is much less than that of the Chinook.

The Chinook is much larger and, while it cannot be flown too close to buildings or trees for the fear of throwing debris at rescuers and people, it can deploy a boat or a basket and then be able to transport up to 30 people back to safety.

To Roach, the name of the program perfectly shows the kind of people working to help the victims of natural disasters.

“Their guys are giving their hearts and minds to this mission,” he said. “Their dedication is from the heart. We are ready, locked and loaded to support the South Carolina residents.”

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