Five daring helicopter crews on five very bad days.
- By Preston Lerner
- Air & Space magazine, April 2013
USCG / Jacquelyn Zettles
(Page 4 of 6)
Right about this time, Holtzclaw saw figures rushing out of the brush. “I said, ‘We’re gone, Zeke,’ ” he recalls. “And with no discussion, I pushed him off this sort of cliff, and we went rolling down the side like tumbleweeds.” While Cook and crewman Don West laid down covering fire, Holtzclaw and Burns hustled into the helicopter. “Burns had a broken bone in his ankle, and he outran Holtzclaw to the aircraft,” Cook says.
Tracers and at least one missile went whizzing past the H-2 as Lassen raced for the water. “Jink this thing!” Holtzclaw yelled. “I don’t have the fuel to jink,” Lassen told him. In fact, the helicopter wouldn’t have made it home if the USS Jouett hadn’t steamed within three miles of the coast. (The Preble was still too far out to sea.) As it was, Lassen—who later received a Medal of Honor for his actions—dispensed with the usual landing procedure and simply crunched the helicopter down on the frigate. In the gas tank, less than five minutes of fuel remained.
During a climb up Mount Terror in northwestern Washington in the summer of 2009, Steve Trent had fallen 60 feet, suffering a concussion, breaking his left femur, and shattering his right heel. Park Ranger Kevork Arackellian knew the rescue would be touch and go.
The rock face where Trent was anchored was very steep, so merely reaching him was going to be difficult, and lowering a litter to him would be time consuming. Oh, and bad weather was rolling in. “It was very clear that he was most likely not going to survive the night unless we got him out of there,” Arackellian says.
The National Park Service uses a search-and-rescue technique called short-haul. Instead of a rescuer being lowered with a winch, he’s attached to the bottom of the helicopter with a long, fixed length rope. The pilot then climbs, descends, and moves from side to side to position the rescuer as needed. This is reasonably straightforward when the terrain is open and flat. But in this case, the pilot would be dealing with unstable weather and a nearly vertical surface. And, in fact, the first pilot to assess the situation told Arackellian that the winds were too gusty for him to attempt a short-haul flight.
Enter Tony Reece, the owner of Hi Line Helicopters. Reece had more than 30 years of experience with long-line flying, using helicopters to help erect bridges or pour concrete and gravel trails, and his logbook already included about 400 search-and-rescues for the park service. His bird—a Hughes 500D with an upgraded engine—was small enough to work safely in tight quarters and powerful enough to hold steady in inclement conditions.
Reece flew to Mount Terror with Arackellian dangling from the end of a 100-foot rope, looking less like a park ranger than an airshow stuntman. At 6,600 feet, where Trent and his climbing partner, Jason Schilling, were waiting, winds were gusting from 15 to 25 mph.