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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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.

Keeping one eye on the mountain and the other on his cargo, Reece eased Arackellian against the rock face and about 10 or 15 feet above Trent. Arackellian scrambled down to the injured climber and fought the wind before clipping Trent’s carabiner into the short-haul line. “I have to cut this rope,” he yelled at Schilling, referring to the lines anchoring Trent to the mountain. Arackellian tossed Schilling a bag full of bivy gear—food, water, sleeping bag. “There’s a radio in there,” he shouted. Then he, Trent, and Reece were gone. The actual rescue took less than one minute.

Reece short-hauled Trent and Arackellian eight frigid miles to the small town of Newhalem. But by the time they landed, the weather had closed in and there was no opportunity to go back and grab Schilling. He spent four supremely uncomfortable days and nights on the mountain. On the morning of the fifth day, Reece and Arackellian returned with the Hughes 500D and plucked Schilling off Mount Terror. Schilling and Trent made complete recoveries.


Ben Orrell vividly remembers his first briefing for the combat search-and-rescue that would earn him an Air Force Cross in 1972. “The commander took us into a room and said, ‘We’re not willing to send anybody in there unless it’s a volunteer mission, because we don’t think you’re going to come back out,’ ” he recalls.

The previous night, a Marine Corps A-6A Intruder had been shot down during a road reconnaissance mission over Laos. Although navigator/bombardier Scott Ketchie was—and remains—missing in action, pilot Clyde Smith had been located in the jungle. But he was surrounded by enemy troops, some of them so close he could hear them whispering as they looked for him. The spot where he was holed up was just a few miles from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was well fortified with surface-to-air-missile sites and anti-aircraft batteries. “It was well known that the Laotians did not take prisoners,” says Orrell, “so we really needed to get this guy out before they got him.”

For two days, crews trying to prevent enemy soldiers from finding Smith flew over the area in F-4 Phantoms, F-105 Thunderchiefs, and A-1 Skyraiders, saturating it with ordnance. “Happiness was having a concussion lift me almost off the ground,” Smith says. Conditions were so perilous that the first two rescue missions were scrubbed. Finally, on the third day, two rescue teams were granted permission to go after Smith in Sikorsky HH-53s, the twin-engine workhorse known as the Super Jolly Green Giant. They were escorted by eight Douglas A-1 Skyraiders. Orrell headed to Smith’s position, while the second helicopter remained at the holding area as backup.

Orrell crossed the Ho Chi Minh Trail and his helicopter immediately started taking anti-aircraft fire. When he descended, hot, humid air caused the cockpit to fog up. As the crew frantically cleaned the windscreen, they received a radio call from the A-1 pilot leading the rescue: “Break right! Right! Right!” At an altitude of 200 feet, the flight skirted over a complex of armed bunkers. Orrell saw a round heading for his sternum hit the armor plating between his feet. But ramp gunner Sergeant Bill Brinson was hit in the knee. “Can you still shoot your gun?” Orrell asked him. When Brinson said he could, Orrell told his crew, “We’re going in.”

Smith ignited a smoke flare designed to establish his position for the helicopter. The tree canopy was so thick that Orrell couldn’t see the ground, but he hovered over the red smoke while flight engineer Bill Liles used an electric motor to lower the jungle penetrator—a cable with a collapsible seat at the end. What Orrell didn’t realize was that the smoke from Smith’s flare had gotten trapped in a gulley and drifted 100 to 150 yards away. The helicopter took ground fire as Orrell hovered. And hovered. And hovered. Still no sign of Smith. Finally, Orrell decided that Smith wasn’t going to make it. “We’re done,” he told his crew. “We’ve got to go. Pull it up.”

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