Police Helicopter Pilot

Helicopter Aviation & Beyond:

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Lost Hiker and Body Recovery

On May 17th I posted the article titled "The San Diego Sheriff's Aviation Unit" wherein I talked about some of the missions we perform in our county, including lost hikers and body removals.  The very next week we responded to two such incidents in a single day.  Interestingly, neither incident was resolved in one day. 

The day shift helicopter first responded to a call from the U.S. Forest Service regarding 3-4 undocumented aliens who had broken into a house to seek shelter after several cold nights in the mountains, (the week prior we had 100 degree temperatures in the county, then the following week a cool spell brought 31 degree temps to the mountains.)  It was determined by the forest service that an additional traveling companion of the group had fallen behind, and was missing.  An initial search from the air was unable to locate the subject. 

After receiving additional information from the group, a member of the USFS located the subject about a mile down the trail, but he had already succumbed to the weather.  As the evening helicopter crew we received a call to respond and assess the scene for the body removal.

After an aerial reconnaissance it was determined the body would need to be removed by "long line".  This takes a bit of coordination between the rural deputy who will investigate the death, and the medical examiner who must first grant permission for the body removal and who will ultimately take custody of the body.  It also requires a helicopter crew that has received advanced long line training.  Due to the time of day, the remote mountain location and the coordination required, these removals must sometimes wait for the following morning.  This one would have to wait. 

Only a short time after clearing the above call my partner and I received a call of a missing hiker near Hot Springs Mountain in the Warner Springs area of the county.  A quick assessment revealed that we had about an hour and 15 minutes before sunset and the location of the missing hiker was about a 20 minute flight.  We responded immediately knowing that we would only have about 25 minutes of search time before dark. 

Now, our unit has been flying with night vision goggles for about 8 years.  Our senior pilots are some of the most experienced NVG law enforcement pilots in the country, (the last time we hired outside NVG trainers they had less NVG time than our senior pilots.)  But like any other piece of equipment they must be used within a set of guidelines that make the mission more safe, not less safe.  A young (in experience) helicopter crew flying in a mountain canyon, at night, with no moon and a low cloud layer is not a recipe for a successful mission.  Therefore, we knew we would be limited to our 25 -30 minutes of searching before nightfall.

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Hot Springs Mtn in the clouds taken en-route to the missing hiker.

The information provided was that a 38 year old man had hiked south from the Lost Valley Boy Scout Camp (appropriately named) around 10:00 am and had not been seen since.  Other hikers possibly heard him yelling for help around 2pm in a canyon about a mile south of the camp along the Agua Caliente Creek.  Multiple passes with the helicopter through this area revealed nothing.  At this time I was on the TFO side of the helicopter and my partner was flying.  I made numerous PA announcements advising the subject to get into an open area and waive something at the helicopter.  Dusk was quickly turning into darkness and the aerial search had to be abandoned. 

The San Diego Sheriff's all volunteer search and rescue responded and searched through the night with ground teams.  The temperature did fall to 31 degrees, but hopes remained high.  The hiker was subsequently spotted by the day crew around 2pm the following day, after hiking to an open mountain peak and waiving his jacket at the helicopter.  The pilot performed a "toe in" maneuver in order to pick up the hiker and fly him back to the search and rescue command post.  Igor Sikorsky's flying machine saves another life!