Five daring helicopter crews on five very bad days.

The rugged and reliable Sikorsky HH-60 Jayhawk, here in a demonstration near Yorktown, Virginia, is the Coast Guard’s only medium-range search-and-rescue helicopter. It can loiter over a target for 45 minutes, and bring back six survivors. (USCG / Jacquelyn Zettles)
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“They’d never sent a helicopter in at night before,” Cook says, “so we were just waiting to hear, ‘Okay, turn around and come home.’ Instead, we were told, ‘You’re cleared to go feet dry,’ meaning we could turn inland. We had maps with little red dots where the known gun placements were, and we were right at Vinh [Son], which was one of the most protected cities in North Vietnam. So we thought, Oh, crap.”

Holtzclaw and Burns, who had broken several bones in his leg when he landed, had taken cover in jungle so thick that they could traverse it only on their hands and knees. As the UH-2A/B headed toward them, Cook saw something—possibly a missile—whoosh past, trailing sparks in the night sky. Pilot Clyde Lassen swooped down from 6,000 feet and landed on the edge of the jungle. Light from parachute flares deployed by other airplanes showed rice paddies and small huts nearby. Holtzclaw and Burns were on a ridge overlooking the clearing. “Come get us!” they radioed. “We can’t get out of here.”

Lassen decided to make a hoist pickup with a jungle penetrator at the end of a 200-foot cable. But the trees shrouding the downed aviators were taller than 200 feet, and because his engine was overstressed, Lassen had trouble holding a hover. So he peeled off to allow Cook to dump some fuel and lighten the load. Then Lassen returned and—using illumination from another set of parachute flares—snuggled down in between some trees to make sure the cable would reach the ground. That’s when the flares went out, blinding the helicopter crew and leaving Lassen without a visual reference point.

“You’re drifting right! You’re drifting right!” hoist operator Bruce Dallas shouted. In the process of correcting, one horizontal stabilizer clobbered a tree. The helicopter pitched down sharply before Lassen regained control. Shuddering as it flew, the Seasprite returned to the clearing where it had landed originally and the men waited for Holtzclaw and Burns. By now, the helicopter was dangerously low on fuel. “We’ll stay here until we have enough fuel to get feet wet,” Lassen said. “Then, if we have to, we’ll set it in the water.”

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.

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