On Dec. 20, 1967, as a first lieutenant recently returned from Vietnam, I piloted a Huey helicopter for the U.S. Air Force from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to investigate flooding in the river valley leading from Tucson down to Nogales. A chain of weather events, beginning with snow in the surrounding mountains, followed by overnight warming and a light, steady drizzle, had led to reported flash flooding.
On board the helicopter, I had my boss, Capt. Dave Henry, flying co-pilot; my crew chief, Sgt. Garcia; and a volunteer, Maj. Carson, who could help Garcia in the back of the helicopter in case we had to rescue people. And rescue we did!
Our first rescue was a family of six that we pulled off the roof of their house with the water up to eaves — and rising rapidly. On our first pass, the father put his daughter, looking all of 5 years old, and her dog on board, before I had to pull off and reposition to get the rest of the family.
All day long we flew over the flooded area, pulled the survivors out and set them on the road down to Amado. I called for more help, and two additional helicopters were dispatched. I asked for a fuel tanker truck and we set up operations in a supermarket parking lot, where we shuttled back and forth, rescuing all at a feverish pace.
Running on adrenaline, Dave and I traded off flying the helicopter and discussed how best to approach each victim to keep them from drowning. I constantly prayed that we could get them all, and that all would be safe.
It was beginning to get dark, and we were now down below Nogales; anticipating our last and 37th rescue before we were too low on fuel and unable to perform in darkness.
We circled a small, mud-brick home and observed that the corner of the home was washed away; however, we could see that someone was peering out the window in the front door.
Approaching a wide spot in the yard and feeling for the firm turf as the water swiftly flowed under my helicopter, I was able to set the skids down on solid ground. Garcia part walked, part swam to the front door; opened it, and brought out a little, frightened Mexican lady, the only resident.
She was crying and had a shawl in her arms that held a few prized possessions, all wrapped up.
Clasped in front of her was a crucifix. We managed to fly her to safety and departed for Davis-Monthan.
With the lights of Tucson in the far distance, we flew in solitude as we listened to the engine and observed the low-fuel warning lights blink on. My call to Davis-Monthan tower was to ask for an emergency fuel approach: We only had enough fuel to make the base, if that much.
The tower cleared me straight in to the helicopter pad in front of Base Ops, held off all traffic in my flight path, and we came screaming in to a five-foot hover over the landing zone, eager to set down.
At that moment, the engine quit!
We were out of fuel and we hit with a thud, but no damage to the skids or crew! I glanced over at Dave, my boss, and he gave me a big, silent wink and thumbs up! We were exhausted!
My crew and I were awarded the Airman’s Medal, the highest award in the Air Force for saving a life in peacetime.
I truly believe the little Mexican lady carried that crucifix as a sign from God: Well done my good and faithful servants. Well done!