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Police Helicopter Pilot.com Talks With Utah DPS Pilot Terry Mercer About His Now Famous Pinnacle Landing(s)

Utah Trooper Terry Mercer landed his Eurocopter AS 350 B2 Helicopter on this pinnacle a total of 11 times during the rescue of an injured hiker in Washington County Utah.When Utah State Trooper Terry Mercer landed his helicopter on this pinnacle back in August to rescue an injured hiker, he had no idea that it would turn into the story which it did.  Once the pictures started filtering out, they began to show up on every major news outlet in the country.  But now that things have settled down, I thought it would be a good time to ask Trooper Mercer a few questions of my own about this pretty incredible landing, or make that 11 landings. 

PHP (Police Helicopter Pilot.com): You are a former Navy Pilot right?  How many PIC hours do you have in helicopters?

Trooper Mercer:  Yes, as a former Navy Pilot I retired from the Navy with about 9000 hrs pretty evenly split between helo and fixed.   I was an H-3 pilot by trade and flew two tours off of USS John F Kennedy.  I ended up with just under 4500 hrs helo with about 3000 PIC.  When I went to the training command tour, helo consolidation for all the services up at Ft Rucker was being discussed, so no helo instructors were being sent to Pensacola.  I ended up going as a fixed instructor.  I feel this made me a better aviator, but I did miss out on the TH-57 (jet ranger) time. 

PHP:  How long have you been flying for Utah DPS?  Are you Sworn?  If so, did you work the streets prior to being transferred into the air unit?

Trooper Mercer:    When I retired I couldn't even get an interview with the light helo EMS outfits, so I ended up with the Patrol and drove the Highways of Utah for 8 yrs having a ball.  After 8 years the Aero Bureau finally had an opening.   I began flying an Army surplus Bell 58 in 2000.  Finally in preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics we got the two Eurocopter Astar B-2's that we fly now.

PHP:  Had you completed an official Mountain Flying Course prior to this landing?

Trooper Mercer:     I was sent to Canada for Canadian Helo Mt Flying course and then when we obtained the B-2's myself and the other Helo pilot went back up for B-2 initial course.  Since then we go to Dallas for Eurocopter's factory school each year for refresher training.  We train each year in-house for an instrument flight and an altitude/external flight. 

PHP:  Does your unit routinely practice or do these types of pinnacle landings?

Trooper Mercer:  Pinnacles such as this are not specifically practiced, however the events of this morning are not everyday, but not uncommon either. 

PHP:  On your initial recon......did you pick out this LZ or did the ground rescuers pick it out and ask you to attempt a landing there?

Trooper Mercer:  I had looked at the pinnacle when I first got there, but decided the SAR team would be "ledged" out and have no access to the victim.  As I dropped the rope team up high one of the first team members had hiked to the victim and then explored out to the pinnacle and sort of goat-hopped out to it, showing me that they could get on and off of the pinnacle. 

PHP:  When you first looked at this LZ did you think for a minute that you would be able to successfully land there? 

Trooper Mercer:  A quick visual of the pinnacle and I knew that it was safe, doable, and the closest site possible.  It immediately changed the entire operation from a 1-1 1/2 day event to a 2-3 hr operation.     

PHP:  What was the worst part about landing on this particular pinnacle?

Trooper Mercer:  I shut down on the pinnacle on the first landing to evaluate the footprint.  The starts  were the worst as the ac sort of shifted weight as the blades began to swing. 

PHP:  Were all of the landings pretty much the same, or were some more difficult than others?

Trooper Mercer:  It was on that third landing that I got sloppy and landed about 15 inches back and so when Cory got out the aircraft sort of teetered back on the skids.  The U-tube footage is when I started it back up and was positioning it forward again.  That's why I was alone and landed about 4=5 times to sort of feel out the footprint and determine where I'd be the most solid. 

Trooper Mercer's third landing of his Utah DPS helicopter provided a little scare when it rocked back on it's heels after shutdown.

PHP:  It appears there is a sheer rock wall in front of you.  How far away was this wall, and did it actually help your landings as a hover reference?

Trooper Mercer:   Over all, the landings were very safe as I had almost 25-30 ft from the wall, so the  blade clearance was not a factor.  The boulders on the right of the aircraft were 3-4 feet below the blades so all I had to do was sit it down.  I thought I had about 18-24 inches fore and aft, but like I said after it teetered I narrowed it down to 4-6- inches fore/aft, but I had a good rock that I could put about 4 inches to the right and 2 inches forward of the right front skid tube and as long as I put it right there, the rest of the AC would obviously follow along.

PHP:  What was the elevation and were there any winds?

Trooper Mercer:  The altitude down there is about the lowest part of the state  (3600 at the site), so even though it was hot I had plenty of power and the wind was dead calm that morning so I had no excuse not to get it done..

PHP:  Was your TFO assisting with each landing by watching skids and talking you down?  Did you make some of these landings as the only person on board the helicopter?

Trooper Mercer:   On occasion during sling missions of marijuana we will use ground radio assistance to position the sling, but during missions like this we fly solo and we don't land where the pilot doesn't have safe clearance.  Our passengers are good SAR members so they help with clearances but the pilot is the final judge.  With just two full time and one part time AirMed pilot we are able to maintain currency and proficiency to a high degree.

PHP: I understand  you did 11 landings, what time frame was this over?   

Trooper Mercer:  I landed 11 times with the first 7 bringing in members 3 at a time with gear.  After taking the medic and victim to the hospital there was 16 people still up there.  I told them to have 2 people on each side of the landing site and load hot to get them off.  Like the professionals they are they were loaded with gear and buckled in about two min each time, so the last four landings were very quick down, load and go.  Like I indicated earlier without shutting down and starting it was really easy.  We originally spotted Jim (the victim) at 0820 and all persons were off the mountain and back at the Command Post by 1140 hours.

PHP:  Having never flown a Eurocopter, I hear they are kind of "squirrley" in ground effect.....would you agree and did this make these landings more difficult?

Trooper Mercer:  The B-2 is called the Ecureuil which means squirrel  in French.  When you hover at 2-4 ft it is "squirrley" so the common tendency is to high hover at about 7-8 ft which smoothes it out a lot, but is not near as good if you have to do a hovering-auto.  Up there that day, the Pinnacle was so small that it really was pretty smooth all the way to the landing so ground effect was I believe, minimized.

Utah DPS Trooper Terry Mercer sits with his Eurocopter AS 350 B2 while victim is being packaged for transport.

PHP:  Thanks Trooper Mercer for taking the time to share your experiences with the readers of Police Helicopter Pilot.com

One of the freedoms of living in the greatest country on earth is the freedom to get out and enjoy the raw and rugged beauty of this United States of America.  Millions of people each year do exactly that, all across the country.  When things go wrong, and some times they do, it is nice to know there are professionals such as Trooper Mercer and the Washington County (Utah) Sheriff Search and Rescue ready to take the call. 

You can see all of the pictures from this rescue by clicking on the above link to the Washington County SAR site.