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Rescue of Rock Climbers Trapped by Fire- Tests Limits of San Diego Sheriff Helicopter Crew,

 

The phone has been ringing off the hook at ASTREA base since Sunday morning, with news reporters from around the county trying to get their hands, or their cameras, on any breathing deputy involved in the dramatic rescue of two rock climbers on Saturday afternoon.  In reality there were more than just 2 people rescued from a sudden raging wildfire that broke out near the south base of El Cajon Mountain at around 1:30 pm. 

Just to remind readers, the San Diego Sheriff's Department, in addition to operating 5 law enforcement patrol helicopters, operate 2 medium lift Fire/Rescue helicopters in conjunction with Cal-Fire, (formerly California Department of Forestry.)  What this means is the two Bell 205++ (Huey) helicopters are owned by the County of San Diego, piloted by sworn deputy sheriff pilots, with a Cal-Fire Captain occupying the left front seat, and a full Cal-Fire Heli-attack crew in the back, (on one of the ships).  It is a joint operation that has proven to be not only harmonious, but a very effective fire fighting asset. 

To set the stage;  El Cajon Mountain, (also known to many locals as El Capitan Mountain) lies just about 5 miles east of Lakeside California.  It is bordered on one side by El Capitan Reservoir, the obvious source for the confusion of whether it is El Cajon Mountain or simply "El Cap."  The mountain rises to a height of roughly 3,675' with a distinct rock face on the south side which is very popular in the rock climbing community.  In fact "El Cap" is one of the most recognizable mountains all of San Diego County often serving as a navigational landmark for those return flights to ASTREA Base from east county, particularly when flying at night on NVGs.  

When the call of a "vegetation" fire came over the fire radios, Deputies Dave Weldon and Gene Palos responded with their Cal-Fire counterparts in Copters 10 & 12.  At about the same time, the Sheriff's patrol helicopter crew, Deputies Scott Bligh and Gary Kneeshaw were advised of two rock climbers who were on the side of El Cajon Mountain.  The two climbers, a male and a female, had called 911 on their cell phone and advised that they were on the rock face above the fire, and were OK for now, but they wanted authorities to know they were there.  Deputies Weldon and Palos, en-route in their fire helicopters also received this information.  

Due to the amount of fire aircraft that would soon be flooding into the area, and the fact that the 2 rock climbers indicated they were OK for now, the ASTREA patrol helicopter crew elected to stay out of the area and monitor the radio traffic.  

Fire Pilots Palos and Weldon were some of the first fire fighting aircraft to arrive in the area.  As they sized up the fire they received another report of 8 people on a ranch on top of El Cajon Mountain who were afraid that they were going to soon be trapped by the fire.  Deputy Weldon pointed his Bell 205 helicopter toward the ranch which sets on a grassy and beautiful plateau on the south east side of El Cajon Mountain.  As Weldon touched down on the ranch he noticed that the group consisted largley of younger children, and older adults.  He got the feeling that there were a few grandparents and grandkids in the group.  Weldon loaded the first 4 people on and headed for El Monte Campground at the south base of the mountain.  

At some point during the short flight Deputy Weldon asked the communications center to check on the 2 rock climbers, and see if they were OK.  Monte Vista Fire dispatch came up on the air and advised that they had just received a call from the two climbers, who advised that they were now in fear of being overrun by the fire.  Weldon dropped off the first 4 people at the camp ground and started the flight back for the next 4 people waiting at the ranch.  The climbers originally advised that they were 3/4 of the way up the mountain, in the rocks.  On the return flight, Weldon and his Cal-Fire partner Tod Ocarrol looked for the two climbers, but did not see them on the vast south face of the mountain.  Weldon began prodding the Comm. Center to see if a lat & long was recorded on any of the 911 calls that the climbers had made.  Many cell phones today are equipped with the technology to provide latitude and longitude coordinates to authorities or to the cell phone company.  Deputy Weldon remained persistent at requesting coordinates from the cell phone.  Eventually, one of the dispatch centers, possibly Monte Vista advised that they did in fact have some possible coordinates for the phone. 

In the mean time Weldon picked up the second group of four people from the ranch and flew them down to El Monte Park.  They now plugged the lat and long coordinates into the Aero Computers Moving Map on board the helicopter, and instantly had a promising location for the climbers 2 1/2 miles north east of El Monte Park.  Weldon and Ocarrol knew that the distance and heading to the lat & long coordinates would put them directly on the south face of the mountain, and strong indication that the coordinates were valid!    

While Weldon and his partner were working to pinpoint the position of the two trapped climbers, the crew of ASTREA 1, Pilot Scott Bligh and TFO Gary Kneeshaw, elected to launch and do what they could to assist.  Both Bligh and Kneeshaw knew that their smaller MD530F helicopter could perform "toe in" or "one skid" rescues in areas where the larger fire/rescue helicopter could not get into.  The added benefit is that they could also do this much quicker than performing a full on hoist rescue using the larger aircraft.

Weldon and Captain Ocarrol flew directly to the lat and long coordinated pinpointed on their Aero Computers moving map and almost immediately located the to trapped climbers on a rock ledge, with the fire moving toward them.  Over the fire aircraft radios Weldon called a halt to fire fighting efforts, declared an emergency on the fire frequencies, and cleared the immediate area of all other aircraft.  He then positioned his helicopter into a high hover directly over the two climbers.  Weldon now communicated his position and the position of the hikers to the crew of ASTREA 1. 

Deputy Bligh wasted no time in performing a toe in landing near the two climbers, allowing Kneeshaw to exit the helicopter and place the female climber in the right front seat that he just vacated.  While the smaller MD500s are perfect for this type of work, the only drawback is that the people being rescued often have to be flown out one at a time.  This is due to both weight and balance issues, and most often the fact that the front seat is the only seat accessible to load a passenger when the helicopter is performing a toe in landing, (as the back of the skids are generally hanging off the side of the mountain or rock face.)

This is an untouched photo of Bligh performing the first toe in to pick up the female climber. Look closly for the helicopter near the black dot.Deputy Bligh backed away from the rock face and began following the mountainous terrain through the smoke toward, El Monte Park, to drop off his passenger.  Back in the air he began to make his way through the smoky haze to the spot where Deputy Kneeshaw and the male hiker waited to be picked up.  It is around this point in time when the rescue operation made a dramatic turn from being an above average-difficult rescue, to being a true life threatening- almost near death experience for the three remaining participants, Bligh, Kneeshaw, and the male rock climber.

While Bligh had been dropping of the female climber, the fire below Kneeshaw and the remaining climber began to roll up the mountain face very rapidly, whipped by westerly winds.  Kneeshaw, fearing that he was about to be overrun by the flames, began transmitting the emergency over the regional air frequency.  Deputy Kneeshaw and the rock climber, now partners in survival began to make their way laterally across the face of the mountain to try to out manuveur the fire, but could only move a short distance before their path became blocked by the rugged terrain.  Deputy Bligh navigated his way toward Kneeshaw's location as rapidly as his helicopter's turbine engine and the reduced visibility would allow, while Deputy Weldon and Cal-Fire Capt. Ocarrol attempted to throw Kneeshaw a lifeline in the form of where best to take shelter if being overrun by the fire.  Weldon also began calling for other Fire Fighting helicopters to make water drops on the fire immediately below Kneeshaw's position.  Deputy Gene Palos was moving into position to make the first water drop when Bligh announced over the air that he had Kneeshaw and the male climber in sight.  Deputy Palos aborted his water drop and moved out of the area to allow Bligh to move in for another toe in landing. 

By this time Deputy Weldon has lost sight of Kneeshaw on the rock ledge as the smoke from the advancing fire had rolled over the top of their location. 

Deputy Kneeshaw looked up to finally see a yellow light coming toward him through the smoky haze.  It was the landing light on the front of his patrol helicopter coming back to get him. 

Deputy Bligh fought through the smoke, tearing-burning eyes, and embers hitting his face to effect the toe in landing.   But the wildfire environment had not played it's final card.  As Bligh made his approach to the rock ledge he was hit with a powerful gust of wind most likely created by the fire itself.  The wind turned the helicopter almost a full 180 degrees demanding the addition of power and the application of tons of left pedal (which also demands even more power) in order to control the aircraft.  The sudden application of that much power caused a condition known as "rotor droop" where the rotor rpm droops.  This droop in rpm sets off warning bells and whistles in the cockpit know as the "engine out" or "low rotor rpm" warning light and audible tone.  In a nutshell it sends a message to the pilot that you may have just lost your engine and are about to crash.  Under normal flight conditions this warning light and tone is enough to make one's heart skip a beat.   But under the circumstances Deputy Bligh was faced with it would take all of his mental focus and determination to maintian his situational awareness, control the helicopter, and make the determination that he still had a working engine and an airworthy helicopter. 

Deputy Bligh placed the front of the helicopter's skids against the face of the mountain while Deputy Kneeshaw shoved the rock climber into the empty TFO seat.  Kneeshaw took up a standing position on the right skid abeam the opened cockpit door, securing himself by holding onto the external and internal hand holds.  Not wanting to be left behind again he shouted at Bligh to "Go!"  The now rescued rock climber further secured Kneeshaw to the helicopter by grasping on to the front of his gunbelt.  Once again Bligh backed the 530F away from the rock face and used the mountain terrain to guide his way through the smoke and to the safety of El Monte Park and solid ground. 

In aircraft accident investigations it is common to identify numerous "links"  in the chain of events that led up to the accident.  But the same is also true when a challenging and very difficult rescue such as this is performed without injury and without damage to equipment.  There were many things in the chain of events that led to a positive outcome and a successful rescue in this situation.  It had the potential to be much worse for everyone involved. 

It is sometimes easy to think that being a member of a law enforcement or fire/rescue helicopter crew is all fun and games.  I think Deputies Bligh and Kneeshaw would beg to differ.  

Outstanding job by everyone involved!    

Look for these guys to be at least be front runners for next years ALEA air crew of the year award.