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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Cat Skinning, Part 2

I began recounting an adventure which unfolded in Haiti during the 1970s as part of an unusually challenging Coast Guard case which aspired to recover a number of deceased American air crash victims, and which also happened to lend itself as the perfect model illustrating that helicopter missions can be exponentially more difficult than airplane operations. I don’t know why anyone would want to actually skin a cat, but this Haitian episode also put on display the reality that where helicopters are involved, multiple approaches to getting any particular job done inevitably become apparent, and some are revealed in monumentally unexpected ways.

We had found the crashed Cessna 414 upslope from a tiny native village in the forebodingly mountainous terrain of northern Haiti, but had not been able to locate a usably close landing zone for our Sikorsky HH-3F. We did find a spot downslope, but due to terrain endlessly obstructed by sharp rocks and slick mud it took us nearly an hour to make the booted foot transit from our aircraft to the location of the crash non-survivors, so we decided to prepare for hoisting the bodies aboard the helicopter, open-sea rescue fashion, one at a time.

Leaving our medical crew at the wreckage site, with enough body bags for the eight Americans, the other pilot and I, with minimum crew, returned to the helicopter and got airborne, eventually achieving a marginally acceptable hover position, nose into a steep cliff face, over the freshly packaged bodies. Hoist operations began as normally as possible, but the guys on the ground were having a terrible time, slipping and sliding in the mud, trying to manhandle heavy bodies in slippery packaging while being blown around by hundred knot rotor wash. It took nearly 45 minutes to get the first body aboard, and elementary math projected that we simply would not have enough fuel endurance, if we stayed light enough to hover in the mountains, to take care of all our casualties.

Additionally, any custom refueling would have to be accomplished by negotiating the long trip back to Port-au-Prince, and in any case we would have no engine failure recourse, or other emergency option, facing the cliff in our uncomfortably tenuous hover position.

We were back on deck at our improvised landing spot, contemplating all the above, when we noticed that a few of the natives from the village far below were beginning to appear, scurrying from one hiding place to another. We couldn’t imagine how they had managed to make the climb from the village to our position in just a couple of hours on foot, so we concluded that they had been with us on the mountainside all along.

We flew back to Jean-Rabel, in order to chat with our English-speaking Catholic Missionary associate, and he attempted to help us sort out our options. In describing the village’s position on circumstances, he mentioned that the native people there were very religious and at the same time very superstitious, having formulated their philosophical perspectives loosely on western religion modified by a powerful brand of localized voodoo. He said that they had seen the crash happen, but would not approach the wreckage or the bodies, fearing that the spirits of the deceased were not yet at rest. He also casually mentioned that though no one would touch any part of the wreckage or the bodies, some in the village had been up to look at the area many times, able to make the trip on foot very quickly. We were shocked and amazed that people without shoes could get up those slopes at all, much less “quickly,” so we inquired further. It turned out that the fleeting figures we had seen at the crash site had followed us up there, and were transiting back and forth regularly. We asked whether there might be any way that some of the youngest and strongest of the natives might help us.

To make a long and fascinating story within a story short enough to close this column, it can be reported here that our missionary “blessed” the crash, and promised that the locals could “possess” its “treasure,” if they would help us take our “loved ones.” A work party was quickly assembled, and, using hand litters we had on board, all seven remaining bodies were delivered to our ridgetop landing zone by an apparently very happy dozen or so barefoot natives, covering slope and distance with truly miraculous speed, loudly chanting and casting ceremonial chicken bones onto the mud throughout the entire process.

Our helicopter mission was thus accomplished, and our assigned cat accordingly skinned, this particular challenge and resolution drawing on Catholicism, voodoo and some diverse but astonishing human talent.

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