Daring Rescue

USAF 37th Helicopter Flight

by Senior Airman Nate Hier

Once in a while, you get a chance to really see your training pay off. For captains Clifford Rich and Brett Machovina, 37th Helicopter Flight pilots, their chance came early in the morning of August 20, 1999.

After taking a call requesting search and rescue support at 4 a.m., the two pilots geared up and readied to take off on what appeared to be an average medical evacuation mission. It became anything but.

What began at 4 a.m. for the pilots started the previous day for a 29-year-old rock climber near Navajo Peak in Colorado. The climber fell, breaking both ankles and sustaining internal injuries. After spending the night on the mountain, ground rescue teams were able to locate him; however, due to incredibly rough terrain, there was no way to get a vehicle in to transport him. After moving him less than a mile in eight hours, it was determined an airlift was the only way to get him out.

USAF Rescue

The helicopter crew took off at 5:10 a.m. with Col. (Dr.) Joseph Palma, 90th Aerospace Medicine Squadron commander, and Tech. Sgt. Lawrence Mason, emergency medical technician, aboard. They arrived overhead the ground rescue team's base camp near in about 35 minutes.

"We knew the victim was in serious need, so we got out there in a hurry," said Machovina. "The crew at the base camp was able to give us some coordinates to locate the rest of the team and the climber. Due to the high altitude, darkness and wind, we knew it was going to be tough."

In a small box canyon between Navajo and Shoshoni Peaks, the ground rescue crew had stabilized the patient and prepared him for transport. The rest would be up to the pilots.

"While we were dealing with reduced aircraft performance and strong crosswinds, we were trying to find a suitable place to put the aircraft down while battling time -- both for the injured climber and for flying purposes," said Rich.

For helicopter pilots, high altitude creates a time restriction. If they're above 10,000 feet without supplemental oxygen, they can only operate for one hour. Anything beyond that, and they'd have to return to lower altitudes and come back.

In addition to the time restraints, the thinner air at the high altitude -- about 11,300 feet at Shoshoni Peak -- causes problems for the aircraft. There's basically less air to keep the helicopter in flight, according to Machovina.

"At that kind of altitude, the rotor systems and engines don't operate as efficiently," said Machovina. "We have to use more power to keep the aircraft up in the thin air, and at the same time, the engines aren't able to produce as much power." With these factors weighing against them, the crew orbited the canyon looking for a place to put the aircraft down.

"The canyon was basically rocks or marshy soft spots," said Rich. "We couldn't land in the marsh, since there was no way we could stop the aircraft from sinking. With the rocks, we had to find something where we could level the Huey out enough to land.

After orbiting, the crew decided to do an approach to the area and get a closer look at where they could set down. Though it still wasn't big enough to support the length of the skids under the UH-1N a small outcropping of relatively flat rock was the best spot they could find.

Using every ounce of training and expertise they'd acquired, the crew was able to balance the Huey on the rock. If it tipped, the crew risked getting the aircraft stuck in the soft marsh surrounding their landing spot.

"We had to stay in using full throttle to keep the helicopter stable," said Machovina. "Not the ideal situation when you're trying to pick up an injured person."

While the crew balanced the aircraft, Palma and Mason quickly worked with the ground rescue crew to load and secure the patient. In about 10 minutes, they were ready to take off. However, if they thought the landing was difficult, getting back out proved to be the hardest part of the trip.

"Between the altitude and the crosswind, we were in a serious struggle to get the aircraft off the ground enough to turn around and exit the canyon," said Rich. "Because the engines couldn't produce much lift, we did a slow U-turn just two or three feet above the ground, watching for rocks and objects which could've ended everything in disaster."

The rocky terrain played tricks on the pilots while the crosswind made the U-turn almost impossible. The crew was forced to hover backwards, then ride into the wind toward the canyon's back wall before getting enough distance to complete the turn and fly with a tailwind back out.

"Once we got to the eastern entrance of the canyon, we dropped the nose over the cliff and built airspeed in order to gain some altitude," said Machovina. "Once we got out of the canyon, we headed for Boulder, Colo., to drop off the patient."

Between a landing with less than half of the skids on level ground and a take-off battling very little power for lift and a strong wind, the pilots had earned a sigh of relief -- and they managed it in 58 minutes, two minutes under the one-hour high-altitude restriction.

This was the unit's 775th save since 1973. It was also the highest-altitude rescue in the unit's history.

"I'm extremely proud of this crew and their accomplishment," said Maj. Keith Sullivan, 37th HELI commander. "They made an extremely demanding mission look like a walk in the park.

The 37th HELI's 16 pilots, along with 90th Medical Group personnel, take about 30 calls each year to support search and rescue, medical evacuation and life flight-type missions in the Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska region.

Their 775th save overall was their seventh this year.

"This was definitely the highlight of my Air Force career so far," said Machovina.

See also:
37th Helicopter Squadron
USAF Bell UH-1N helicopter

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