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Local News

Helicopter Pilot Recalls Harrowing Rescues from Montecito Flooding, Mudslides

Veteran aviator and County Air Support Unit crewmates hoisted up scores of trapped, injured residents, as well as dozens of pets, during Jan. 9 deluge

 

After two decades of flying helicopters, pilot Matt Udkow has logged approximately 5,400 hours and undertaken some tough missions, including helping save people after Hurricane Katrina.

But none of those missions compared to the harrowing conditions he and his Santa Barbara County Air Support Unit colleagues faced Jan. 9 as floodwaters, mud and other debris engulfed houses, trapping residents and pets, requiring what he called “hard rescues” in Montecito.

“I’ve been flying a long time and this is definitely some of the most challenging, if not the most challenging, conditions that I’ve ever hoisted in,” said Udkow, who spent nine years as a pilot in the Navy and an additional 11 years with the Coast Guard. He joined the Santa Barbara County Fire Department as a pilot just six months ago.

He’s also quick to credit to his crew mates, firefighters Glen Dupont, who handled the hoist, and Bryce Wible, who was lowered to the ground, while Udkow flew the aircraft. They completed 12 hoists and six rescues.

“I think everyone that could have been saved was saved because of ground units and air units,” Udkow said. “But, again, I can’t ever be sure of that.”

Their aircraft, Copter 308, was not alone in the sky since Copter 3, Ventura County Squad 6, and a pair of Coast Guard helicopters were also operating above the disaster zone.

In all, the air crews conducted 26 hoist operations from early morning until dusk Jan. 9, county firefighters said.

Air rescues saved 131 civilians along with 42 dogs, 11 cats and three birds, according to the county tally.

These numbers don’t include hundreds of rescues performed by firefighters and other first-responders on the ground.

On Jan. 9, crews arrived before dawn but conditions temporarily prevented them from lifting off from their base at the Santa Ynez Airport. After sunrise, they launched in weather that otherwise might have kept them grounded, Udkow recalled.

Santa Barbara County Air Support Unit Copter 3 flies over the Montecito flooding on Jan. 9, in a photo taken from above from Copter 308. Click to view larger
Santa Barbara County Air Support Unit Copter 3 flies over the Montecito flooding on Jan. 9, in a photo taken from above from Copter 308. (Santa Barbara County Air Support Unit photo)

“This was a crisis,” he said, adding that they immediately recognized the huge challenge they faced and used Coast Guard connections to summon additional helicopter help.

Once flying over the South Coast, Copter 308’s crew got to work quickly, meeting an ambulance at a school field to pick up a patient with a chest wound.

Due to the mass casualty incident, county helicopters bypassed protocol to shut off engines when landing at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, he said.

“It’s against hospital procedures but we told them we had to because we had to get back out,” Udkow said.

A downpour kept them grounded for 10 minutes before they lifted off when the crew deemed it had “cleared enough,” he said.

“Clear is an understatement,” he added.

Once airborne, they spotted a woman waving from a rooftop with her house three-quarters submerged in mud.

“At first there was just utter destruction and we just picked up someone who looked like they were in distress,” Udkow said, adding that they were later dispatched as calls for help reached dispatchers.

As they rescued the woman, they learned of a neighbor trapped in his house with a broken leg. They also took him to safety.

While unloading the man from the helicopter, Udkow recalled the victim saying matter of factly, “My wife is gone.”

“That hit me pretty hard,” Udkow said, adding that firefighters later said the man likely was in shock.

Another call involved responding to an older woman and two of her firefighter rescuers who had become stuck in waist-high mud.

“This is a pretty challenging hoist because it’s like 120 feet above the ground,” Udkow said, adding he prefers hoisting from 30 feet above the ground. “There’s this big tree right in front of the left skid of my helo. I’m sitting on the right side so I can’t see.”

That wasn’t the only challenge the crew faced at the moment.

“It also started raining like I’ve never seen before,” he said. “It was the hardest rain I’ve ever encountered in a helicopter. It started leaking in the helicopter.”

After he lowered a firefighter to rescue the woman, Udkow’s radio died.

“I couldn’t talk to them,” he said. “I couldn’t hear them. I knew something was wrong but all I could do is keep the hover.”

He said the tension was fierce before they found a workaround.

Copter 308’s day ended when Udkow and crew members detected an electrical burning smell, leading the pilot to make an emergency landing at Birnam Wood Golf Club.

After allowing the aircraft to dry out for two days, Udkow flew Copter 308 to Van Nuys for significant repairs, leaving the Santa Barbara County unit with one less helicopter.

The County Air Support Unit boasts personnel from the fire and Sheriff’s departments with a fleet that includes three Huey helicopters plus two OH-58 helicopters used for law enforcement operations.

Normally, the pilot would have three firefighters on board for a mission, but that fateful day they operated with just two since they staffed two Air Support Unit aircraft for mudslide rescues.

“We’re here to support the people on the ground, the men and women who are first-responders, fire, law enforcement, and those guys are out there in the mud doing it,” Udkow explained. “Especially to be able to help some of those directly with the firefighters who got stuck is pretty awesome.

“But those guys are the real heroes who are out there slogging it out in the trenches.”

One crew of firefighters on the ground rescued a man so covered in mud he couldn’t be seen from the air.

“The work they were doing on the ground was instrumental,” firefighter Thomas Wade added. “You really had to almost be there on the ground to find those victims.”

Air Support Unit members recently joined other first-responders for a special post-crisis counseling session, where Udkow had a chance to talk to the Montecito Fire Protection District firefighters he and his crew helped out.

“One of the crewmen said the hardest part was not being able to go and save everyone,” Udkow said.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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