Fight or flight? Jessica and Michael did both to rescue hundreds with their helicopters

Susanna Freymark

The numbers tell the story of the flood response by private company Rotorwing Helicopters.

At the start of the floods, they were using two helicopters. Now they have 12 here.

Over five days they made 20 drops to Coraki.

They have coordinated 250 drops so far across the region.

At least 100 people have been moved to safety by their helicopter crews.

More than 1000 calls for assistance have come in.

They’ve done 50 animal feed drops.

These figures were up to yesterday, March 7.

By now, they numbers would have increased.

Jessica and Michael Barnes run Fly Byron and usually take people on pleasure rides to waterfalls and mountains across the Northern Rivers. It is usually a happy occasion – a wedding, a birthday gift, a joyflight.

On Monday last week that changed.

They were evacuated from their home near Lismore Airport and despite that, they went straight into action.

With only two helicopters, they started helping people trapped in floodwaters.

Jessica took care of logistics and operations.

“Michael was pulling people off roofs,” she said.

“He had to break through the roofs of some houses.”

They increased their fleet of helicopters to 12 and made food drops to Evans Head, New Italy, Bungawalbin and Broadwater.

Karlton Wilder took this video of them landing on high ground at Broadwater where residents were trapped for five days.

“Whoever contacted us through text message, Facebook or pretty much anywhere, we responded,” Jessica said.

The cost of the flying missions has been funded by several sources.

Residents have fundraised to pay for helicopters, there was a “sizable donation” from actor Chris Hemsworth who lives in Byron Shire and Essential Energy has contributed to the costs.

Jessica and Michael haven’t had a chance to process what they have seen.

“We’re running on adrenalin,” Jessica said.

“We’re operating on bare bones.

“We’ve lost our home and most of our belongings.

“It’s completely shattering but it’s pushed to the back of our minds.”

When things “settle down” the couple will debrief and recover, Jessica said.

Rotorwing Helicopters were not the only private company helping in flood rescues. Others did too, just like the residents who jumped into tinnies and rescued people stranded in their homes as floodwaters rose.

Questions are being asked in the community – where were the army helicopters? Why did it take so long to get help?

These questions are yet to be answered.

Michael Barnes from Rotorwing Helicopters.

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