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Thursday, February 1, 2007

Searching Mount Hood

Marcia Hillary Kay

IT WASN’T AN UNEXPECTED CALL. THREE EXPERIENCED hikers were missing on Mount Hood, the tallest and most scaled peak in Oregon. Members of the Oregon Army National Guard fully expected to be called upon and employ their UH-60 Black Hawks and CH-47D Chinooks in what was hoped would be a successful rescue mission.

Col. Dave Greenwood, the state aviation officer for the northwestern U.S. state, said the unique capabilities of the National Guard’s helicopters dictated that Guard units undertake this particular mission. "No one else in the state" is able to perform this mission, he said.

Military helicopters were the only ones used during the mid-December 2006 mission.

Greenwood specifically noted the aircraft’s high-speed Western (now Goodrich) hoist capability and specialized personnel, as well as the availability of night-vision goggle-trained and equipped crews.

The last communication from the hikers had been on Dec. 10, when Kelly James used his cell phone to send a distress message. At 48, James was an experienced hiker. He was later found dead of hypothermia in a snow cave on the north face of the mountain on Dec. 17. The search for the other two, Brian Hall, 37, of Dallas, and Jerry Cooke, 36, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was called off Dec. 19 because of worsening weather and decreasing probability that they had survived.

The search for the three men was extensive, with helicopters hovering over possible sites whenever the weather, which was unpredictable at best, permitted. Years of training allowed the soldiers of the 1042nd Medical Co. (Air Ambulance), in Black Hawks, and Detachment 1, Bravo Co., 168th Aviation Battalion, in Chinooks, to scour the treacherous mountain from all sides. Mount Hood’s terrain encompasses snowfields and glaciers. Eliot Glacier, on the northeast side of the mountain, was the focus of much of the search, both aerial and on foot.

Maj. Thomas Lingle is commander of the 641st Medical Battalion and of the Army Aviation Battalion of the Oregon Guard. "Typically, we would make an extraction from the glacier," he said.

Dec. 16 was the first day helicopters could safely fly to the summit and meticulously scan the mountain. "It was the best weather we could hope for," said CW2 Shawn Lazier, a Black Hawk pilot. "The winds were calm."

With the performance capabilities of the CH-47D, the crews were able to locate a snow cave on the 16th. "We were able to hoist three people down onto the mountain. Those searchers found the cave and the body near the summit," said Lazier.

"We wanted to hover over the summit" of the 11,239-ft (3,425-m) mountain, said Lingle. "There were clear, south winds and we were able to hover at 52-percent torque at 11,000 ft."

Hoisting searchers from Portland Mountain Rescue, who scour the mountainside on foot looking for any signs of life, is a fundamental part of training for the Black Hawk crewmembers.

Throughout the nine days of the Mount Hood search, the helicopters used in these rescue missions were "locked and loaded," said Greenwood. "We are ready to launch at any time."

In the environment in which these helicopters operate, pilots must be most aware of power management, said Greenwood. With temperatures around minus 10F, ensuring the helicopter engines did not have to work too hard was critical, said Greenwood. "Steady headwinds helped because we had to use less power. There was better airflow through the rotor system."

It also helped that the aircraft were not operating close to max gross weight, Greenwood said. The UH-60’s max gross weight is 22,000 lb. Transporting members of the Portland Mountain Rescue team to the summit did not put extra stress on the aircraft.

Like others throughout the Army National Guard and regular Army, the Oregon pilots are trained to fly in dangerous terrain similar to that of Mount Hood. They cannot use Mount Hood for training purposes since it is within a federal wilderness area for which a land-use agreement has not been worked out, said Lingle. But the pilots are schooled at the High Altitude Army Aviation Training Site in Gypsum, Colo. Trained there in power management and flying in the thin air of the Rocky Mountains, the Oregon Guard pilots are ready to tackle the Cascade Mountain chain in which they often operate. The pilots spend one day in the classroom and four days flying from the site’s 6,500-ft.-elevation airport to peaks up to 14,000 ft. The school is run by full-time Colorado Guard pilots

"What it does teach us," said Greenwood, "is how to operate in a safe and efficient manner" and how to devise an escape route when necessary.

The ability to have a safe escape route can be crucial should the winds change or there is a maintenance problem while airborne. Pilots may have to make decisions on the spur of the moment in order to save themselves and their aircraft.

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