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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Above and Beyond: R&W Salutes the Winners of the Public Service & Military Operations Awards

Ernie Stephens

The winners of the Military and Public Service 2007 Above And Beyond The Call Awards performed their duties bravely, professionally, safely and with honor.

This year, as in past years, the Helicopter Heroism Award judges had a tough time picking the overall winner, and the winners of the military and public service categories from the 20-plus reports submitted to R&W from all around the world. Hours were spent pouring over accounts of extraordinary men and women working to save lives under extraordinary circumstances.

Rescue in the Pacific: U.S. Coast Guard Helicopter CG-6570

Public Service Awarded To: Lt Lauren Cox, pilot/aircraft commander; Lt Alex Barker, pilot; AET3 Celso Jaquez, crew chief; AST2 Shawn Lesko, rescue diver

Aircraft: Eurocopter HH-65C Dolphin

Call Sign: Coast Guard 6570

On Nov. 25, 2007, Craig Peterson of Chetco River, Ore., boarded his Catalina sailboat, the S/V Jack, with the intention of either sailing north to Alaska or remaining in home waters to fish. Peterson, however, had a history of mental instability and often went off into heavy seas.

Having not heard from Peterson for a week, his family contacted the Coast Guard, which immediately began issuing Urgent Marine Information Broadcasts hoping he would radio back with his status.

Two days later, as winter storms in the Pacific Ocean drove winds to 45 kt and waves to 30 ft, Peterson radioed Coast Guard Group Humbolt Bay in northern California. He advised that his rudder was broken, and the S/V Jack was taking on water over its side. He also reported that his vessel was not equipped with an emergency position indicating beacon, nor did he have a survival suit to protect him from freezing if he went into the frigid waters 50 mi off the coast.

After carefully weighing the weather conditions and the seaworthiness of the S/V Jack, Air Station Humboldt Bay dispatched Coast Guard 6570, a Eurocopter HH-65C Dolphin search and rescue helicopter to locate the S/V Jack and rescue Peterson.

While en route to the area where the imperiled vessel was believe to be, pilots Lt Cox and Lt Barker noted the lack of celestial illumination, which made their night vision goggles virtually useless. They also took notice of the winds, which were buffeting their medium twin-engine aircraft with gale force. They knew their mission would be very difficult, but proceeded on, knowing that weather and time were working against the master of the S/V Jack.

The crew of Coast Guard 6570 was awe-struck when they arrived on the scene to discover that the S/V Jack was being tossed about in towering waves that threw it from side to side with such intensity, the mast of the 25-ft sailing ship would sometimes dip into the cold, dark water.

Fighting off the stress and fatigue of the bumpy, 50-mi sprint from their base to Peterson’s location, Cox, with the constant aid of Barker, tried to steady their aircraft above the S/V Jack, but had to wave off as the winds and darkness conspired against them.

After an orbit around and back to the S/V Jack, Cox was able to bring the Dolphin to a hover above Peterson, with Barker shadowing the controls and monitoring the instruments. At one point, Barker’s assistance with the controls helped Cox overcome a potentially fatal roll caused by a vicious gust of wind.

With the aircraft on-station and holding above the S/V Jack as well as could be expected from its team of talented pilots, AET3 Jaquez lowered AST2 Lesko into the churning Pacific with the helicopter’s rescue cable.

As Lesko entered the water, Jaquez watched in horror as a large wave violently caught his comrade and pulled him approximately 15 ft through the water. But unbeknownst to Jaquez, the battering effects of the ocean had injured Lesko’s back, causing him severe pain.

Disregarding both the injury and the pain in his back, Lesko swam to the S/V Jack, got Peterson into the water, and loaded him into the rescue basket lowered by Jaquez. Lesko, cold, tired and still in great pain, remained in the water until the basket returned to deliver him back aboard the aircraft.

Once aboard the helicopter, Cox and Barker turned Coast Guard 6570 back to shore with its gages indicating the minimum amount of fuel needed for a safe journey to their base.

Back on shore, Lesko was hospitalized for a lower lumbar sprain, and returned to full duty one week later.

Peterson was transported to the hospital, treated for exposure and released.

For their courage, crew coordination and determination to save the life of Craig Peterson, the crew of Coast Guard 6570 received the 2007 Helicopter Heroism Award for a public service operation.

Rescues in Toluca de Lerdo: Mexico Government State Air Rescue Unit

Military Awarded To: Capt Ivan Valencia Reyes, pilot; Capt Alejandro Garcia Ramirez; Rogelio Sanabria Piña; Victor Manuel Figueroa Corchado, rescue specialist; Noe Vilchis Lopez, rescue specialist; Capt Raul Alberto Lozano Tellez, pilot; Capt Enrique Alejandro Velazquez Gonzales, pilot; Jose Adrian Rivera Padron, rescue specialist; Francisco Fausto Valdez Becerra, systems operator

Aircraft: AgustaWestland A119 Koalas

Call Sign: Relampago-1, Relampago-2

On Nov. 1, 2007, heavy, continuous rain flooded the city of Toluca de Lerdo, located 160 mi north of Acapulco, Mexico. Mexican President Felipe Calderon Hinojosa declared a state of emergency in the area, and activated as many disaster recovery and public safety personnel as he could find. The order included government detachments of helicopters with rescue crewmembers.

Among those who answered the call were the bright red helicopters of the Mexico State Air Rescue Unit, call signs Relampago-1 and -2. ("Relampago" was taken from a comic book superhero of the same name.) Both aircraft were hoist-equipped A119 Koalas, and were tasked with delivering badly needed supplies and conducting search and rescue operations in the storm-ravaged area. Each ship was staffed by four highly trained crewmembers consisting of two pilots, a rescue specialist and a systems operator.

When Relampago-1 and -2 arrived in the city, they found thousands of homes and businesses almost completely submerged. Frightened citizens of all ages could be seen huddled on roofs, clinging to pieces of floating debris, and sitting in trees begging the crews for assistance. Many of the stranded were also seriously injured and needed immediate medevac service.

Crewmembers aboard both helicopters knew they had to act quickly, since many of the roofs people had clamored onto were weakening under the force of the rushing water. These roofs were often poorly constructed, and would certainly disintegrate if a helicopter attempted to land on them. In fact, the pilots believed that merely hovering close to them would peel them apart in the rotor’s downwash.

After quickly assessing the situation, the crews decided to extract as many victims as possible using their hoist, making sure to hover high enough over the site — usually 150 ft or more — to ensure their rotors were clear of obstacles and their downwash would not further damage the weakened buildings.

Relampago-1 and -2 made approximately 19 hoist extractions, mostly by sending a rescue specialist down on the cable to provide first aid and coordinate the process, followed by lifting victims into the aircraft one by one. In some cases, rescue specialists organized people with boats, calling upon them to bring stranded residents to pick-up points that the helicopters could reach more easily, thus increasing their overall efficiency.

With each evolution, the dedicated crewmembers of Relampago-1 and -2 took aboard as many people as the light single-engine turbine aircraft could safely hold, fly them to a rescue center, then return for more victims. With each aircraft capable of remaining airborne for approximately three-and-a-half hr before needing to refuel, the two-man pilot teams would switch off flight duties from time to time, allowing one of them to take a quick rest before retaking the controls and giving their counterpart a break.

On the third day of the rescue effort, Relampago-1 spotted some villagers signaling for help. When the crew landed, they were told that a man had died, but they had no way to bury him with high waters everywhere. They went on to tell Rescue Specialist Victor Manuel Figueroa Corchado that they were afraid his body would contaminate the area, and asked if it could be flown out. Corchado agreed to try, and was taken to where the body was being kept.

Once Corchado reached the body, he decided to play it safe and check the body for vital signs. The man was still alive! Corchado’s evaluation revealed he was a diabetic, whose glucose level had dropped so severely, he had slipped into a coma. The man was transported to a medical facility where he could receive proper care.

Time and again, the flight crews aboard Relampago-1 and -2 pulled sick, injured and frightened people from the clutches of death. Their effective use of helicopter rescue techniques, plus their stamina and willingness to push their capabilities as close to the edge of the envelope as possible without crossing the fine line of carelessness, won them the 2007 Helicopter Heroism Award for a military operation.

The staff of R&W salutes all of the winners and nominees for their heroic, dedicated service to mankind, and their professionalism as helicopter aircrew members!

Heroes One and All

The main thrust of R&W’s annual Helicopter Heroism Award is to honor the selfless, extraordinary acts of bravery and commitment to fellow human beings by those who work aboard helicopters. The nominees can come from the military, commercial or public service sectors. In fact, it’s even possible that some day a young private pilot will find him or herself nominated for an unexpected situation.

Most people have a working definition of what heroism is, and can easily point to famous and not-so famous people who have performed heroic deeds. But even though all of R&W’s award nominees could easily point to the others, including their fellow crewmembers, and say those aviators were heroic, they could not bring themselves to describe their own conduct that way; choosing instead to humbly say "I was just doing the job I was trained to do."

Nearly every case study received involved a flight crew that raced toward trouble under circumstances that few others would ever willingly face. Cases involved military combat operations, homeland tragedies and search and rescue missions. All included a high-level of predetermined risk and the knowledge that skill, stamina and dedication would play a significant role in the success of the mission, and very likely the lives of all involved.

Trying to pick the top three winners from a list full of winners was the task of the judges, each of whom are experienced aviators and could easily be called heroes themselves, due to one or many things they have done in their flying careers.

Each judge individually studied the synopsis of each entry, reading every detail of the situation in which the people were involved. All of the little things that added to the big picture had to be scrutinized, such as weather, type of helicopter, crew specialty and training. A large component of the equation was also what the pilot-in-command knew and when he or she knew it, as that information often points to whether a mission is or isn’t too risky to accept.

The line between taking an intelligently assessed, properly managed risk and taking a foolish chance is hard to second guess, particularly if the outcome of the mission was successful. Each day, though, many aviators make poor, dangerous choices that place them in disastrous situations. Yet, some manage to cheat death — many times as a result of luck rather than skill — and live to tell their story and the lessons they learned from their ordeal.

Yes, the judges found a few cases where the nominees took potentially deadly risks that, in the opinion of the judges, were foolhardy and unnecessarily risky, at least as described in the synopsis that was submitted. And while the judges unofficially applauded the heroic intentions of those individuals, they could not in good conscience move their nominations forward. Where aviation is concerned, heroism should not walk hand-in-hand with carelessness, recklessness or neglect.

Instead, the judges concentrated on the actions of men and women who unemotionally weighed the strengths and weaknesses of themselves, their crews and their ships, then measured those factors against the peril the object of their mission would face if they did not go to their aid. This made the judges’ decision process very difficult, though not nearly as difficult as the ones made by courageous mission commanders who must sometimes utter the words, "We just can’t do this."

Once the judges had preliminarily ranked their own lists, they met as a group via telephone to hear arguments for and against where the many gallant nominees should be placed on the collective list for the Helicopter Heroism Award.

The discussion among the group was often lively, sometimes somber, and always enlightening, as the individual judges weighed what they read against their own experiences flying combat, EMS, police, fire and SAR missions. Special care was taken to assess the actions of the nominees based on the information they and their crews had available at the time.

For all of those whose actions were nominated but did not win the coveted Helicopter Heroism Award this year, the judges appointed by R&W salute your courage, talent and dedication to service. You are all heroes in your own right, especially to the people whose lives were saved by your professionalism and attention to duty.

The judges of the 2007 Helicopter Heroism Award honor you all!

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