Local helo squadrons return from hurricane relief

Locally based helicopter squadrons returned to Hampton Roads in late October 2017 after providing relief to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. Credit: Marielena Balouris/WAVY.

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Four locally based helicopter squadrons are back in Hampton Roads after helping with hurricane relief in Puerto Rico.

Officials say Helicopter Sea Combat squadrons 5 and 7, and Helicopter Mine Countermeasures squadrons 14 and 15 returned Chambers Field at Naval Station Norfolk.

The squadrons helped provide food, water and electricity to residents on the islands following Hurricane Maria.

The sailors got the call about their deployment to Houston on Aug. 26.  On their way home, they were redirected to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

On Tuesday, 10 On Your Side caught up with some of the sailors of HSC squadron 7. For them, the last two months have been a whirlwind.

“You don’t train to fly in a hurricane,” said Lt. Benjamin Bontrager, who is a pilot with HSC squadron 7.  He grew up in Florida, so he’s seen hurricanes before, but this was different.

He said, “I had not seen that level of flooding and level of damage.”

In Houston, Bontrager flew above neighborhoods as sailors rescued people. “This was a completely different type of hovering, hovering low in neighborhoods with buildings, trees, towers, wires,” he said.

They fought the tough conditions, rescuing 26 people in just the first night.

“It’s really neat to be somebody’s second chance,” said Petty Officer Carter Parham, also with HSC squadron 7.  Parham is a rescue swimmer, and often one of the first people to find survivors.

He said, “You kind of have to set aside all of your emotions and think about the people that are having way worse days than you.”

The squadrons focused on search and rescue operations, each person playing a critical role in the mission.

“We flew an insane amount of hours,” Bontrager said.  “Around the clock operations and our maintenance crew didn’t miss a beat.”

He says it was a team effort — from pilots, to mechanics, to air traffic controllers.

“See something wrong, it’s gotta be fixed,” said Jason Zander, an aviation electronics technician.  “If it’s not fixed, the aircraft won’t be able to fly and if it goes unnoticed, the aircraft could crash.”

“We say ‘so that others may live,”said Parham. “That is what we’re doing, we’re allowing other people to continue with life.”

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