OKARNG aircrews drop hay to stranded livestock after snow and ice storms Dec. 28-30

By 1st Lt. Geoff Legler, Oklahoma Army National Guard Office of Public Affairs

The Panhandle of Oklahoma can be a very inhospitable place.  Each summer the daytime temperature rises into the hundreds for weeks at a time and in the winter the cold wind blows across the arid landscape like an artic gale.  The ranchers and farmers of the panhandle take care of their livestock day in and day out with little regard for the weather and are usually prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws their way.

During the last week of December and the first few days in January that all changed as the western Panhandle of Oklahoma was pounded by the second severe winter storm in a week.  Especially hard hit were Cimarron and Texas Counties where upwards of four feet of snowfall and 20-foot snow drifts hampered response efforts. Ranchers and farmers found it impossible to reach their livestock by truck or tractor.  Thousands of cattle and other livestock were stranded in knee high snow without fresh hay and within the next two to three days they would have become lethargic, laid down in the cold snow and died.

A massive loss of cattle could cost the State of Oklahoma 's economy millions of dollars.

On Wednesday, January 3rd, the Oklahoma State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) requested assistance from the Oklahoma Army National Guard and their CH-47D “Chinook” helicopters.  The plan was to transport round bales of hay by helicopter to the stranded livestock located in remote areas. 

The following morning a crew of two pilots and four flight engineers was assembled at the Oklahoma Army National Guard's Army Aviation Support Facility in Lexington , Okla.   At 9:00 a.m. they departed Lexington in aircraft 064 for the two and a half hour flight to Boise City , Okla.  

Soon after landing in Boise City , the pilots, Maj. Pete Barger, of Shawnee , and Chief Warrant Officer Dan Halley, of Avery , Texas , began working out the logistics of the operation with local and state authorities.  The flight engineers got their first look at the bales they would be loading into their aircraft and rolling out the back while in flight.  After trying several different loading techniques, they determined the safest way to load the 1,350 pound bales was to roll them in by hand and strap-in each bale individually.

After nearly two hours of preflight coordination the pilots and crew lifted off from the Boise City Airport in route to the first drop location near the Oklahoma and Colorado border.  With them was Mark Goeller, the Assistant

Director of the Forestry Division of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, served as a liaison for the pilots. After a few minutes of searching, Sgt. Jeremy Courange, of Purcell, and Sgt. Chris Atteberry, of Norman , spotted the first group of cattle.  Sgt. 1st Class Kevin McAnally, of Purcell, and Sgt. Ian Anderson, of Norman , rolled the first six foot by six foot bale out the back of the Chinook from an altitude of 200 feet.   The bale hit the ground and bounced a few times before coming to rest on its side.

Due to the geographical location of the livestock and initial coordination time, the crew only had enough daylight to drop 12 bales the first day of the mission.  Those 12 bales had a combined weight of approximately 16,200 pounds and held enough hay to feed 600 cows for at least two days.

On day two Sgt. Courange and Sgt. Atteberry took on the hay discharge duties while Sgt. 1st Class McAnally and Sgt. Anderson served as spotters.  Using the lessons learned from the previous day, the crew hoped to get 35 to 40 bales out that day, but the weather would prove to be problematic. 

After departing their base of operation in Guymon , Okla. , the pilots pressed forward until the weather forced them to land at the Boise City Airport .  The temperature had dropped by nearly 30 degrees from the previous day to around 25 degrees with a wind chill in the mid-teens.  Visibility had also taken a dramatic turn for the worse dropping to less than one-quarter of a mile in the drop zone with near white-out conditions.  

After two hours on the ground, the weather began to improve and the crew went to work.  In about five hours 24 bales were dropped before sundown.  Those 24 bales equated to 32,400 pounds of hay, which would feed 1,200 cows and a few wild donkeys they saw that day.

On Saturday, January 6th, the weather had improved and this would be their best day yet.  Although still bitterly cold, visibility has greatly improved and the sun was out.

A second CH-47D, aircraft 066, had arrived to assist in the hay drop operations.  With some luck and two helicopters the crews hoped to drop 80 bales that day. 

The crew of 064 reached the pick-up zone (PZ) a few minutes after 9:00 a.m.

and by 2:00 p.m. with fuel running low they returned to Guymon to refuel.  They had already dropped 27 bales that day and still had time to return after lunch to drop 12 more before sundown for a total of 39 bales. 

But, as fate would have it the second helicopter blew a hydraulic line early in the day and could only drop eight bales.

The day's totals for both aircraft were 47 bales weighing 63,450 pounds which was enough hay to feed 2,350 cows. 

On the forth, and final, day of hay drop operations both aircraft were up and running and the crews spent more than 13 hours in the air flying between the pickup zone and the drop zones.  At the end of the day, the crews had dropped a combined total of 66 bales weighing 89,100 pounds which was enough hay to feed 3,300 cows.

The two CH-47Ds flew a total of 41.5 hours delivering 149 bales of hay weighing 201,150 pounds.  The 149 bales were enough to feed 7,450 cows. 

As the crew of 064 prepared to head home, many of the farmers and ranchers came out to thank them for their assistance and for their service to our country.  One unidentified rancher said, “Without your help, my family and I would definitely be in a world of hurt.  Thanks for all you have done for all of us.”

Maj. Barger told both crews during their debrief, “Assisting our local communities is the most noble work we do and the citizens of northwestern Oklahoma are pleased of what we have accomplished over the past few days.”