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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Yosemite Helitack Patrols National Park on Unique Missions

By Todd Vorenkamp

Bell 205-1A N28HJ at the Helitack base.

Likely far from retirement, one of the world’s oldest Bell “Huey” helicopters is being treated to some of the most spectacular scenery on planet Earth. Looking showroom-new, Kachina Aviation’s Huey, registration N28HJ, is over 29,000 hours young and currently enjoying the spectacular vistas of Yosemite National Park.

You wouldn’t know it from the outside appearance, but this red-and-white aircraft was the sixth Bell 205A-1 to roll off of the assembly line and, according to its mechanic, is the second highest time Huey in the world. Built by Bell in 1968, the helicopter has seen a few upgrades through the years and is outfitted with a Bell 212 tailboom for improved performance.

Helitack pilot Tim Lyons does pre-flight planning at the Helitack base.

Idaho-based Kachina Aviation is currently fulfilling a five-year National Park Service contract to provide aviation services to Yosemite. Kachina provides the aircraft, pilots, mechanics and ground support equipment. Yosemite Helitack, based at the Crane Flat Lookout in the western part of the park, performs fire suppression and management missions, search and rescue (SAR), medical evacuations, and airborne law enforcement tasks.

Firefighting is the primary mission of the Yosemite Helitack team, and the single-engine Huey is used to transport firefighters to the scene of fires in the park’s remote areas that would otherwise require multi-day hikes. The Huey can also sling a Bambi Bucket to directly support fire suppression missions.

The Helitack team also specializes in high-altitude SAR, performing 47 missions in 2010. The park elevation ranges from just over 2,100 feet to more than 13,000 feet at its highest peaks. With the park offering some of the world’s most challenging rock climbing venues, the Helitack crews stand by for the call.

Many overland SAR units train for rescues off of “vertical” surfaces, but the Yosemite rescuers routinely perform rappel and short haul rescues from the sides of massive granite icons with names like El Capitan (rising 3,000 feet from the valley floor) and Half Dome (4,800 feet from the base). In the inland SAR world, there are cliff rescues and there are cliff rescues—the sheer size and beauty of these two famous rocks provide a challenge to Yosemite Helitack crews and the Huey rarely seen in other places.

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