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Fri, Sep 09, 2005

Navy Denies Disciplining Helo Pilots

They Left On A Logistics Mission And Ended Up Rescuing More Than 100 Civilians

US Navy Lt. David Shand and Lt. Matt Udkow thought they'd done the right thing. They left NAS Pensacola on a logistics mission -- provide much-needed supplies to military installations along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. They ended up rescuing more than 100 civilians stranded by floods. Instead, the New York Times reports, they were "chided" for deviating from their assigned mission.

"I felt it was a great day because we resupplied the people we needed to and we rescued people, too," Lieutenant Udkow told the Times. But the air operations commander at Pensacola Naval Air Station "reminded us that the logistical mission needed to be our area of focus."

Both were flying H-3 helos (file photo of type, above), often used in rescue missions as well as in resupply tasks. If you've seen any of the media coverage in the days just after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts.

"Their orders were to go and deliver water and parts and to come back," Commander Michael Holdener, NAS Pensacola's Air Ops Chief, told the Times.

They did that, delivering both to Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. But on the way back to base, they intercepted a Coast Guard radio transmission that said helicopters were desperately needed to help with rescues near the University of New Orleans.

"We're not technically a search-and-rescue unit, but we're trained to do search and rescue," Lieutenant Shand, a 17-year Navy veteran, told the New York Times.

Arriving in the fast-flooding New Orleans, Shand, Udkow and their crews found few rescue operations underway. "It was shocking," Udkow said. So they headed for storm victims waving desperately from rooftops. They lowered their rescue baskets again and again.

"I would be looking at a family of two on one roof and maybe a family of six on another roof, and I would have to make a decision who to rescue," he said. "It wasn't easy."

Back home at NAS Pensacola, the Navy was already in a bind. The base only had two aircraft to fly logistics and resupply missions. There simply weren't enough pilots to fly long-running SAR missions.

"We all want to be the guys who rescue people," Commander Holdener said. "But they were told we have other missions we have to do right now and that is not the priority."

The situation doesn't sit well with other pilots and flight crew members. Some have even stopped wearing the unit patch that says, "So Others May Live."

The Navy now says there was no reprimand and both Shand and Udkow have continued to fly.

"Since then, Lt. Shand and Lt. Udkow have flown eight missions in New Orleans, saved 30 people and delivered 30,000 pounds of supplies," NAS Pensacola spokesman Patrick Nichols told the Pensacola News Journal. That's a big step up for Udkow. Immediately after the incident with Commander Hodener, he was reassigned, overseeing a kennel housing the pets of base personnel forced to evacuate in the face of the storm.

FMI: www.naspensacola.navy.mil

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