Grand Junction grad now flying helicopter missions in Haiti

It seems like something from a technology-driven adventure flick, but Lt. Sean Cavanagh’s experience maneuvering a helicopter between canyon walls was all too real.

Cavanagh, a helicopter pilot assigned to the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, just completed a three-week assignment to Joint Task Force-Haiti. The Carl Vinson and its Red Lion squadron of SH-60F Seahawk helicopters arrived off Haiti the night of Jan. 14, two days after the Jan. 12 earthquake that shattered the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

For Cavanagh, a 26-year-old 2001 Grand Junction High School graduate, a mission on Jan. 26 never will fade from memory, he said via e-mail.

Cavanagh and another pilot, Lt. Steve Schwarzer, were directed to a nearby landing zone where patients in critical condition were awaiting transport to one of two hospital ships, the USS Bataan or the USS Comfort, the latter of which was about two minutes’ flight from the landing zone.

He was accustomed to both, because if the Bataan was backed up, helicopters bearing patients would be diverted to the Comfort and vice versa.

“Once we landed on deck, they started loading the victims,” Cavanagh wrote. “The first patient in the helicopter was an adult male with second-degree burns on 40 percent of his body. His arms were completely burned and swollen, his back, neck, and face all burned. It was a horrible, horrible sight. There were two young women on stretchers, one with a broken back and pelvis, the other with a broken femur, and then two other patients. One was a young boy who basically had a crushed left arm and the other a broken leg.”

While his helicopter was being loaded, Cavanagh was directed to a different location.

“It seemed at that moment, all facilities were getting crushed with patients, and there wasn’t anywhere to go,” Cavanagh wrote. “I told them I had five critical patients and we would be done loading in two minutes and ready to lift.”

About a minute later, he received coordinates from an E-2C Hawkeye, a jet circling high above, where missions are organized, to a hospital where his patients could be treated.

“It ended up being about 65 miles north of Port-Au-Prince. We had to weave our way through the canyons of two mountain ranges and averaged about 140 knots (approximately 160 mph) trying to get these patients there as soon as possible,” Cavanagh wrote. “It took about 25 minutes to get there which was kind of a long ride for the two stretcher patients, but we made it.

“This is one flight that will stick with me for a long time, and I’ll never forget looking back and seeing a cabin littered with patients on stretchers and the burn victim.”

Major relief efforts started the morning of Jan. 16, when Cavanagh made his first flight into the country.

“I was lucky to fly in the morning when the city was relatively quiet but later on in the day, things became chaotic,” he wrote. “I think the people were kind of scared of the helicopter in the morning, but by the afternoon, birds were being rushed by hundreds within seconds of landing.”

That night was taken up by planning and changing the way the rescue forces operated and by Jan. 17 and 18, operations were more smooth, Cavanagh wrote to friends.

The helicopter pilots could fly to landing areas by memory and ground forces knew better what to expect.

“We have also figured out that a 5- to 10-foot hover makes it VERY difficult to rush the helicopter and allows us to land on our own terms and crowds can’t get to the helo anymore,” he wrote.

The damage to the capital city of Port -Au-Prince and the people who live there was particularly touching, Cavanagh wrote.

“Flying over the city is gut-wrenching and my heart breaks for these people, mostly the kids. Today we were sitting at the embassy and they asked us to take empty body bags to the airport where one of the major medical facilities is.

“We asked how many and they came back with as many as we can fit.

“It is hard to swallow these kinds of missions and it’s a feeling of despair that is hard to describe. You just get a lump in your throat and knot in your stomach.”

Delivering water was one of the most important of the early helicopter missions, a job that eventually was taken over by trucks and other delivery methods, Cavanagh wrote.

That left more time for helicopters to concentrate on medical evacuations — and difficult choices.

On Jan. 29, Cavanagh was sent to Landing Zone 30, one of 56 around Haiti, where he picked up two women, both with broken legs. One also suffered a broken back. He delivered the women to a makeshift hospital, where physicians “pleaded with us to take an 8-year-old boy in very critical condition to the Comfort.”

The makeshift hospital hadn’t the equipment to keep the boy alive overnight, Cavanagh wrote.

“Of course this is an easy decision and we were willing to take the boy but we needed to coordinate with the E-2C Hawkeye to let the Comfort know and see if they could take the patient and ultimately help him,” he wrote.

Cavanagh also had a mission to pluck two geologists from the mountains and deliver them to the embassy in Port-Au-Prince.

“We were deep in the mountains in a canyon and couldn’t get communication with the E-2 unless we took off again. We assured the doctor that we would be back to pick up the boy but we needed to go to another landing zone and coordinate.  It took only minutes to coordinate the hospital transfer of the young boy to the Comfort.  We flew eight miles to the geologists, which were in a pretty sketchy landing zone but we picked them up anyway and proceeded back to the boy.”

When they arrived back at the hospital, the doctors said the boy needed oxygen to make the trip to the Comfort, about a 25-minute flight.

Cavanagh’s helicopter carried no oxygen and neither did any of the other helicopters in the area. With sunset about 30 minutes away, it was too late to call in yet another helicopter, he said.

“The options became: Send the boy on the helo and hope that he lives 30 minutes, regardless of what the doctor thought, or keep him at the hospital and try to keep him alive through night. That was it.

“We were told to lift because there was one more helicopter scheduled to land after us and that would give the medical team another 10 minutes to try to figure something out.

“Upon landing on the boat, we found out the boy died before the last helicopter arrived.

“I realize that had they put him in my helicopter he may have died in the helo, but part of me wishes we would have given him that chance,” Cavanagh wrote. “I know thousands have died, but this one hurts knowing he was minutes away from being on his way to the hospital.”

The day before that mission, Jan. 28, Cavanagh was part of a mass evacuation in which four helicopters moved 33 patients and 16 medical escorts to the Comfort.

“We moved all of the patients (every one was critical in a stretcher) and escorts in 2 hours with 11 of them going in the back of my aircraft,” Cavanagh wrote on Jan. 29, but the events of that day still weighed heavily.

“Today just hurts more,” he wrote. “The flying continues to be heavy hearted and thank you for the continued support here.”

The Carl Vinson’s mission in Operation Unified Response off Haiti ended last week and the carrier is steaming to San Diego.

With many nongovernmental organizations in place, as well as the Army and Marine Corps the Bataan and Comfort offshore, “We are leaving the country in capable hands,” Cavanagh wrote. “I feel privileged to have been able to be a part of the relief and rescue efforts here.  I think the work the carrier and her helicopters were able to perform here is a testament to the value of carrier aviation. “Our ability to conduct humanitarian missions is unmatched and the most rewarding mission for a helicopter pilot.  I’m glad the Vinson and her aircraft were in a position in the world that we could help with short notice and be on station off the coast of Port-Au-Prince within such a short period of time.  Hopefully we were able to ease some suffering and provide relief and comfort that would have been otherwise delayed.”


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