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Aid flights evacuate Pakistan flood survivors

By Frederik Pleitgen, CNN
  • U.S. military has 18 helicopters flying aid missions to Pakistan's Swat district
  • Crews fly aid into flood ravaged towns like Kalam and bring people out of the area
  • U.S. crews even fly produce for farmers in areas cut off from road access
  • Aid missions considered vital to response efforts and improve Americašs standing in the region

Kalam, Pakistan (CNN) -- If you've ever been on the subway during rush hour in one of the world's major cities you will understand how crammed the U.S. Army Chinook was taking off from the flood ravaged town of Kalam in the Swat district of North West Pakistan.

Normally the CH-47 Chinooks can carry up to 100 people, but according to a Pakistani officer charged with counting the passengers there were more than 120 on board when Lieutenant Colonel John Knightstep's chopper lifted off.

It was another show of how the U.S. military is pushing the boundaries trying to help those who have lost everything in the floods that hit Pakistan more than six weeks ago.

"We're averaging about 200,000 pounds (91,000 kilograms) of aid every day," Knightstep said in an interview with CNN. "We are also helping displaced people, ferrying about 200 per day, if not more."

The U.S. military has 18 helicopters from the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade out of Wainwright, Alaska, flying aid missions to the Swat district of North West Pakistan.

The crews will be on missions for about eight hours every day usually flying aid into ravaged towns like Kalam and evacuating residents from the area.

The Swat district is considered one of the most beautiful areas in all of Pakistan with mountains almost 20,000 feet high. But the mountainous terrain also makes flying challenging for the crews.

Video: Mercy flights in Pakistan
  • Pakistan
  • Armed Forces
  • Floods

"Some of the areas we fly into are kind of small, because we are landing into villages that don't normally have aircraft traffic. They're not set up to handle aircraft as big as this. So some of the landing sites are kind of small and it is a bit tricky to get several aircraft into there, but you just have to be careful and watch what's around you," said warrant officer Aron Cunningham, who flies a CH-47 Chinook.

The town of Kalam, one of the main destinations for the aid-carrying U.S. helicopters, was considered one of the prime tourist destinations in Pakistan before the Swat river, which flows through the town, burst its banks on July 29.

The rising waters literally tore large chunks out of the city destroying many of the town's prime hotels.

"Seeing the people that we are moving around, seeing the damage that has been done to their villages, they have been cut off from their road network, their access to food and basic supplies, that we tend to take for granted," said Cunningham.

"So helping them is certainly a rewarding experience for us."

The U.S. crews even fly produce for farmers in areas cut off from road access so they can get their goods to local markets.

Swat also has political significance for the U.S. and Pakistan.

Until last year, the district was ruled by militants like the Taliban before the Pakistani military cleared the area, and the population is very distrustful of the United States.

So far, however, the troops say they have not seen any hostility from the local people.

"We've had no problems," said Knightstep. "We've had no security issues, it has been safe. They are in need and from what I can see they are extremely happy to see us."

Most of the helicopters flying into the devastated areas are packed with aid as the military is trying to stockpile goods in Kalam and other places that are still cut off.

They know once the winter arrives it will often be impossible to fly into Swat, even though, being a unit out of Alaska, the pilots are used to flying in extreme snow conditions.

"In terms of the mountains and the snow this will feel a lot like flying back home," said Cunningham as he was steering his Chinook toward a resupply point called Rubicon, where the helicopters are refueled and loaded with aid.

The U.S. says the aid flights will continue until the job is done and that could take several months.

Pakistani military officials say the chopper crews have been vital to their flood response efforts and have done a lot to improve America's standing in this part of the world.

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