Astar at Custer, South Dakota

Astar B3 at Custer
The Astar B3 at Custer, September 11, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

We stopped by the Custer, South Dakota airport recently and briefly visited with the helitack crew. Assistant Manager Corey Lewis said the helicopter and personnel spent quite a bit of time this summer in the western states.

Again this year the U.S. Forest Service has an Astar B3 on exclusive use contract.

Yellowstone area helicopters make two short haul rescues

Yellowstone Helitack crew, short haul training. NPS photo.
Yellowstone Helitack crew, short haul training. NPS photo.

Helicopters in the Yellowstone area made at least two short haul rescues in August, both of them with ASTAR B3 ships.

The first occurred on August 17 in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. The helicopter from Yellowstone National Park had been assigned to the general area for fire and rescue support working out of Wenatchee when a climber had a medical problem at the 12,000′ level on Mount Rainier at Disapointment Cleaver. The Mount Rainier rangers knew the Yellowstone helicopter was in the area and requested it to respond after they evaluated the condition of the climber and considered the rescue alternatives.
short haul rescue

The other happened on August 27 after a snag struck a Chena Hotshot crew member while assigned to the Kelley fire on the Sawtooth National Forest in central Idaho. The rescue was performed by a Jackson, Wyoming Teton Interagency helicopter while the ship was assigned to the fire. The National Park Service describes this rescue:

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“…Immediately after the accident, the Chena superintendent requested a medical evacuation, prompting air attack to request an air ambulance and a hoist-capable helicopter. Hearing the radio traffic, a Teton Interagency Helitack crew member assigned to the helibase notified air attack that the crew and Helicopter N26HX, which was conducting water drops from a dip site near Helibase, were short-haul capable. Short-haul is a rescue technique where an individual is suspended below the helicopter on a 100 to 200 foot rope. This method allows a rescuer more direct access to an injured party, and it is often used in national parks like Grand Teton National Park in the Teton Range where conditions make it difficult to land a helicopter in the steep and rocky terrain. Patients are typically flown out via short-haul with a ranger attending to them below the helicopter.

Operations diverted the helicopter from a water bucket mission, and the crew began preparing for a short-haul. Pilot Chris Templeton and short-haul spotter Garth Wagner flew a reconnaissance mission. Tasks included locating a suitable insertion spot, conducting environmental and power checks, and determining that a short-haul mission was the appropriate tool. Based on the recon flight, the crew completed a short-haul and Green-Amber-Red (GAR) risk assessment, then readied for the mission. They configured the helicopter by removing the doors, attaching a “three-ring” backup to the cargo hook, and inspecting and attaching a 150-foot-long short haul rope to the cargo hook. They also checked the harnesses for the short-hauler and spotter, as well as the communication systems. A litter was prepared with a harness and attachment points.

While the helitack crew was preparing helicopter N26HX for short-haul, another helicopter delivered medical gear to the site of the injured firefighter. An EMT on the Chena Hotshots and other crew members prepared the patient for transport. The helicopter inserted short-hauler Ron Johnson, whose normal job is as a Jenny Lake climbing ranger at Grand Teton National Park, with a litter and line gear into the extraction site. Rescuers transported the patient on a spine board the 150 feet to the extraction site. Because the patient was already packaged, the helicopter extracted him and the short-hauler about 15 minutes after inserting Johnson on site. They were flown back to helibase where a team of Teton Helitack members caught the patient and litter and transferred him to an awaiting life-flight helicopter.

Teton Interagency Helicopter
Teton Interagency Helicopter. NPS photo.

During the week before the successful rescue mission, the Teton Helitack crew flew nearly three hours of short-haul training in typical terrain for pilot proficiency. Such proficiency training is required every 28 days, and in this case, the training was also essential in preparing the helitack crew to receive the patient and litter at helibase.

Using the short-haul method is relatively new to wildland fire, but is one of the preferred methods of rescue in the rugged terrain of several national parks, including Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion and Grand Canyon. The Yosemite Helitack crew performed a successful rescue earlier in August on the Green Ridge fire on the Deschutes National Forest.”