Call it a gesture of airborne hospitality in a community’s time of need: In Alabama, one of several Southern states hit by a freak snowstorm this week, Birmingham-area resident David Upton flew his company helicopter and ferried away nearly a dozen people stranded in their cars and in medical need.
There was the pregnant woman and her young son desperately seeking to get home; the sick man who needed a ride from work and a woman who needed a lift home from a hospital.
At 52, Upton, co-owner of a company called Cranweorks, is used to using big equipment to help people out of professional jams. But this was something entirely different: neighbor helping neighbor.
“I had a blast up there – it was so gorgeous with all the white snow," he told the Los Angeles Times. "We rarely see that. But along the way, I was able to help some good people out. It was fast and we covered a lot of territory.”
While Atlanta has gotten most of the national attention for its storm-related traffic chaos, Birmingham was also paralyzed by 2 inches of snow, significant in a city not used to such wintry weather.
That’s where Upton took to the skies in his Hughes-MD 520 craft that carries five.
Since he earned his pilot’s license in 1989, he has used his firm’s chopper to whisk customers around the region in a 100-mile radius. Usually, it’s taking a high-roller to a college football game. But on Wednesday, the work got more serious.
With many highways clogged with abandoned vehicles, road travel in Birmingham on Wednesday was nearly impossible. But not for Upton. “In five minutes, we covered area that would have taken five hours by car.”
Upton said he was was first cruising the icy streets Tuesday in his four-wheel drive truck helping motorists who had skidded off the road. In a barbecue joint near his suburban community of Homewood, he was approached by a man who recognized the Craneworks logo on his jacket.
Area resident Les Bradford told Upton that he and his pregnant wife were stuck 20 miles from home and had come to the restaurant to get warm and decide their next move. They had to figure out some way to get to their 3-year-old son, who was stranded at his daycare center.
Upton offered the couple a place to stay that night at his girlfriend’s home. Then the next morning, he made an offer that to the couple sounded too good to be true: He’d fly them home.
“We were confused: Fly us home?” Bradford wrote in an email to The Times. “After a trip to Birmingham airport, we loaded up his helicopter and before we knew it we were landing in our neighborhood.”
But that wasn’t all. Upton then flew to pick up their son.
"And a second landing in the neighborhood was just as epic, with our 3-year-old this time,” Bradford wrote. "Many props to the Upton family. David’s generosity is awesome.”
Upton wasn’t done, not by a long shot.
Word of his flights got out and he soon began receiving requests for more aerial rescues. He picked up a man who had taken sick at work and whisked him home. He picked up his own father, who had been stranded the night before at a church. Then he rescued a woman who had been stuck shivering inside her car for 21 hours.
A friend called. His mother-in-law was stuck at an area hospital and wanted to get home. Within minutes, Upton was landing at the facility to take four people away.
“Nobody messed with us. There were troopers also in the air who let us pass right on by,” he said. “The hospital even cleared off their helipad and let me fly right in. Under normal circumstance, no way I could do that. But this was a catastrophic storm. There were no rules.”
Stephen Upton said his brother takes the air whenever he can. “We want to be cautious that we’re not flaunting our ability to fly our helicopter around while for many, things are tough,” he said. “We don’t want to come across as ‘Look at us.’”
That was hardly the case. David Upton has received hundreds of emails and posts on social media thanking him for his fly time.
“I can land my helicopter just about anywhere, as long as there aren’t power lines,” he said. “I was loving it. I love to fly.”