San Diego County's vast Anza Borrego Desert from around 20,000'
It may surprise you to know that not everyone holds a positive opinion of the many public helicopter operations around the country, and the missions that they carry out. Of course the positive support far outweighs the negative, but the detractors are out there. Comments such as "personal flying clubs" and "just boys with expensive toys" come to mind. In addition, in these economic times more and more agencies, cities, and counties are forced to re-evaluate the use fullness of their aviation programs.
It is for these reasons that I offer some first hand accounts of recent helicopter rescues, in order that the concerned taxpayer or citizen can form a more accurate opinion.
In a two week period around the middle of July my partner and I picked up a total of 9 people (in three groups of three) from San Diego's back country. All 9 people were in various stages of heat exhaustion, with some likely on the verge of heat stroke. Now these were just the people that we picked up. This does not include the 2-3 hoist rescue operations that we were also involved in during the month of July, (we'll get to those.) This is one crew, one helicopter, on one side of the shift.
So who or what determines that all of these people required an expensive helicopter to pluck them from their dire situation? What happens when help doesn't come? And aren't these people responsible for putting themselves in the predicament they are in? All are good questions and all have good answers.
First, history and experience in our region more than justifies the use of an expensive helicopter to quickly remove these people from their hostile environment and reposition them to a place of safety. Many of these people are literally only a few hours from death, as most do not seek help until they are out of water and heat exhaustion is firmly upon them.
During this exact same two week period we are reminded of what happens when help does not come. My partner and I also responded with the coroner and recovered a body in the Corrizo Wash area of the Anza Borrego Desert.
So do these people bear some responsibility for putting themselves in these situations? Well sure they do, but that does not remedy their situation. Additionally, these incidents do not start off as major blunders, but rather innocent miscalculations that can have very unfortunate results. Consider the 9 individuals we picked up. All nine appeared to be under the age of 25, six were young ladies, and all appeared to be otherwise upstanding citizens out in the back country to enjoy a brush with mother nature. All are sons and daughters and grandchildren, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters to people who love them.
RESCUE #1: The first three people in distress hails from the Vallecito Wash area of the Anza Borrego Desert State Park off of Highway S-2, parts of which are also known as The Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849. How is that for sounding rugged and inhospitable?
These three young men chose a warm sunny day with temperatures topping out at 112 on the ground, to drive out to an area called the mud caves. This is an area of desert erosion with unique canyons and crevices that are popular among desert visitors. The small truck they are riding in becomes stuck in the sand, many miles off of the highway. This causes them to set out across the desert on foot, with a limited water supply.
Within an hour their water is gone and they utilize that life saving device known as a cell phone to call for help. We get the call from our communication center, relayed by state parks.
My partner and I had just taken off from Gillespie field in our newest patrol ship, the Bell 407 which is capable of carrying a total of 7 people. Our fuel tank is full giving us about 3 hours of flight time. We turned toward the desert and immediately begin the information gathering process. How many people are we looking for? What is the best known location? What is their condition? How did the call come in and from whom? What ground contacts do we have and what are their call signs? What frequencies will we be working on?
Once all of these questions are answered the second stage of information gathering starts, which is just fine tuning everything we learned in the first stage.
Even with all of this information it is still a vast desert and search area. Once on scene we repeatedly try to verify that we are in fact searching in the right area. After about 20 minutes of on scene searching my partner announces that he has them on his side of the aircraft.
There location was in a flat open area of the wash so we were able to land within a few feet of two of the subjects. The third one had gone one ahead to try to find a trail sign, but quickly made his way back to the helicopter. One of the subjects had removed his shirt and his shoes in an attempt to cool off, (and had been walking in the hot sand barefoot) a sure sign he was reaching a critical stage. All three were provided water and loaded in the back of the 407 for the flight to nearby Aqua Caliente County Airport and the air conditioned comfort of a State Park Rangers vehicle.
RESCUE #2: I believe it was a Monday morning a few days later when we received a call of three female hikers, overheated and in distress, on the trail of the Ramona side of Cedar Creek Falls (a popular hiking spot responsible for a good share of the rescues we do.)
Cedar Creek Falls is only about a 9-10 minute flight from our base vs. the 25 or so minutes it takes to get out to the Desert. We are very familiar with the falls and the trails that lead into them, so we can often narrow down the location of someone in distress fairly quickly.
In this case one of the ladies in the group had hiked out to the top of the trail, in order to get cell phone reception and report that others in the group were in trouble. After a short flight we began searching the trail that leads from the bottom of the falls, up to the edge of the Ramona Country Estates distance of about 2 miles. The first couple of passes did not reveal anyone on the trail. From experience we both knew that they eyes do not always focus on what you are searching for the first time, and it often takes repeated attempts, even when you know you are in the right area.
A few minutes later the three subjects were located just off the trail taking advantage of a small patch of shade offered up by a some scrub brush. We could see that at least one of the subjects was in worse condition than the other two, as she was laying on the ground with the two friends providing care.
Bell 407 helicopter, Rocky Laws photoOnce again we were flying the Bell 407. While it has plenty of power, and is a great people mover, it is not the choice rescue helicopter for mountainous terrain, (for a variety of reasons the MD500 series which makes up the rest of our fleet, is the preferred ship for confined or mountain terrain.) However, we were able to find a location flat enough to place the skids of the 407 across the trail, while keeping the main and tail rotor free of obstructions. Once again my partner set out to contact and evaluate the three ladies in need of assistance.
The report came back that at least one of the subjects had lost consciousness, which I relayed to the waiting fire department personnel. My partner then set about loading each of the three subjects into the back of the 407, a somewhat slow and deliberate process due to the uneven terrain and the spinning rotor blades, (sadly an Arizona Department of Public Safety Paramedic was killed earlier this year performing a very similar rescue, also in a Bell 407 when he inadvertently stood up into a turning rotor blade- likely from a position of rising terrain.)
With all three subjects loaded in the back and all three displaying obvious symptoms of heat exhaustion, we began the short flight to the top of the canyon. The landing site was on the golf course, next to the road and the waiting fire trucks. Three more heat victims safely delivered back to civilization.
RESCUE #3: This one is my favorite, if there can be such a thing. I believe it was one week later, the following Monday, my partner and I received another call of three female hikers in distress at Cedar Creek Falls, but this time they were on the trail on the Julian side. Today however, we were flying one of our preferred MD530 model helicopters. Though it can carry less people it has shorter rotor blades for getting into smaller spaces, and it has a different and more rugged landing gear much more capable of landing on uneven or rough terrain. We simply make up for the fewer seats by making more trips.
A quick check of our fuel status revealed that we had a sufficient amount to respond to the call. Having already burned off a hundred or so pounds of fuel is an added benefit.
The trail on the Julian side is not the same as the trail on the Ramona side, for either the hiker or for the helicopter. First it is a longer trail, with even less shade, (almost none) and fewer places to land. The trail is pretty much a drop off on one side, and a steep incline on the other.
We arrived and began at the lower end of the trail, working our way towards the top. Again, there were no persons readily visible on the trail. About one fourth of the way up my partner advised that he thought he had them. We turned and came back to the spot on the trail that caught his eye. Sure enough under the shade of a small overhang, were three female hikers all of which appeared to be around 19-21 years of age.
Luckily for all of us the group as about 100' down the trail from one of the two or three spots where we could land. In this particular location there is just enough clearance to get both skids down on the trail, while maintaining a safe distance between the rotor blade tips and the rising terrain on the opposite side of the trail. With the helicopter on the ground my partner was off once again to contact and evaluate the three subjects. The report came back that two were declining medical treatment but the third was definitely exhibiting symptoms that required medical treatment.
This rescue would require three trips, thus a total of three landings on the trail. My partner assisted the first (and the one in need of medical treatment) to the helicopter. While she was able to walk with assistance, it was obvious she was in pretty bad shape and would never make it out of the canyon without assistance. Once secured in the back of the helicopter we were off to the familiar fire trucks waiting at the east end of the Ramona Country Estates. Then it was back to the trail for two more landings and two more flights. This time however the young ladies were ferried back up to the trail head where their vehicle was parked.
Throughout the course of the event you start to get some indicators of the overall condition of the subjects involved, and to some extent the value that they place on the level of service you have provided. This rescue was starting to score pretty high on both scales. The bright red faces left little doubt that the subjects were suffering from heat exhaustion. But the best indicator was as we were off loading the second subject at the top of the trail, she felt it necessary to give a big hug of thanks to one of her rescuers.
Back at the top of the trail with the third subject, my partner once again exits the helicopter to assist the young lady out of the back and away from the turning rotors. This subject too expressed her gratitude with a hug, and then peeked into the cockpit to mouth the words "thank you."
There was little doubt about what value these 9 subjects placed on publicly funded helicopters and the missions they sometimes carry out. Glad to be of help!
In other rescues there was the Japanese film crew that was accompanying members of our narcotics task force to a marijuana grow in a very remote area of Palomar Mountain. Whether it was a lack of water intake or just an intolerance to the heat, this subject fell ill and could not hike back out of the canyon where the operation and filming was taking place. Some of our own pilots were already on scene performing long line operations, and advised that it a hoist rescue would be required due to location.
For this rescue we responded and met up with the crew of one of our fire rescue helicopters. The victim was located and the two crews joined up on the rescue ship to perform the hoist rescue. The victim was soon plucked from his spot on the trail without incident and delivered to medical personnel waiting at a nearby airport.
Another hoist rescue from the trail at Cedar Creek Falls allowed our unit to utilize a new victim rescue harness called the screamer suit. The screamer suit looks like a combination oversize sleveless vest, and a big red diaper. But as long as the victim can stand it goes on in seconds and is one of the quickest and easiest harnesses to use.
While our hoist rescue program is a joint program with Cal Fire, this rescue was performed completely by Cal Fire personnel as the rescue crew, with a deputy pilot.
My partner and I had already landed on the trail and determined that the victim could not be loaded into the back of our small helicopter.
Our fire rescue helicopter soon arrived on scene, and lowered the rescue specialist, also known as "RS1" in hoist rescue lingo. Within minutes the victim had been placed in the screamer suit and was riding the cable up to the rescue helicopter. Excellent work by the all Cal Fire rescue personnel crewing the back of the ship on this day.
Lastly, there was the individual walking or hiking in the desert that did not have a way to call for help when he ran out of water and was overcome by the heat. This person's final resting place was a hot and barren landscape in the area of Corizzo Wash in San Diego's east county. I believe the report came in from Border Patrol, who normally gets the information from other undocumented migrants or "international travelers" as they are sometimes called.
The first helicopter responded to the lat & long coordination with the Medical Examiner Investigator but was unable to locate the body. The following day a more accurate lat & long was obtained and a second helicopter crew went out and ultimately located the body. Marker tape was left on a nearby bush and plans were made to remove the body on the following day. These type of removals require coordination with the M.E.'s office, the rural patrol unit whose beat the body is on, and the two person team the M.E. contracts with to perform the actual transport.
All of the coordination and plans were made thanks to my partner, so the following morning we set out for the flight to the location with the lady medical examiner investigator in the back seat. The operation went fairly smooth as the morning quickly turned hot. My partner and the investigator were dropped off at the location of the body with all of the necessary equipment. This includes body bags, cargo net and cable to attach to the bottom of the helicopter.
I flew the mile or two to the staging location where rural deputies and the removal crew were staged, picked up one of the crew members and delivered him to the body location to assist the investigator. After the body was packaged and ready to be flown out, the investigator and the removal crew member were flown back to the staging location on Highway S-2. Upon returning the line was attached to the helicopter and the helicopter was positioned in a hover over the body for my partner to make the connection to the cargo net. The body was then lifted and flown back to the staging area. Finally I returned and picked up my partner, then it was back to the staging area to recover some equipment and the investigator and make a bee line back to the base and to cooler air.
Body recovery operations like this happen year around in our back country, and are fairly routine.
Helicopters do indeed save lives.