Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 55 seconds.
Get a group of seasoned rescue professionals around a table together, and you’re sure to hear some great stories.
That was the idea behind “Life on the Wire,” a roundtable discussion held Jan. 28 at HAI Heli-Expo 2020 in Anaheim.
The event was organized by SR3 Rescue Concepts and held upstairs in the Vertical booth, and although we livestreamed the discussion on the @verticalmag Instagram, it was too good not to share with the rest of our audience, too. So we’ve posted a video of the entire hour-long discussion on our YouTube channel, and collected some of the highlights here.
The professionals who took part in the discussion have decades of combined experience in helicopter search-and-rescue (SAR) operations. They include Derek Everitt, a paramedic-rated winchman for CHC Ireland, which flies Sikorsky S-92s for the Irish Coast Guard in all-weather SAR operations. Wil Milam, chief rescue specialist for Two Bear Air Rescue in Montana, who previously served as a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmer out of Kodiak, Alaska, and Astoria, Oregon. Tony Webber, a long-serving pilot with the San Diego Sheriff’s aviation division, currently assigned to its fire rescue program.
Joining in from SR3 Rescue Concepts were Rob Munday, a rescue specialist with Blackcomb Helicopters in British Columbia, who has been involved with firefighting and SAR programs in Canada and Australia; SR3 primary flight instructor Dave Callen, who has spent nearly two decades with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) conducting hoist, one-skid, and long line rescues; and hoist operator, rescuer, and paramedic Jason Connell, who recently retired from the LVMPD.
The wide-ranging conversation touched on a variety of subjects: from the participants’ most memorable rescues to their biggest mistakes and, closely related, their best pieces of advice. Here’s a sample.
When you have to ‘reel yourself in’
Callen’s most memorable rescue occurred on a recent New Year’s Eve, always a big night in Las Vegas. He was staffing an MD 500 and, just after midnight, received a call that a teenager had fallen from the edge of a steep cliff where he and a friend had gone to watch fireworks. Callen and a rescuer took off in strong winds and flew to the site of the accident, where the location of the victim was pinpointed by people on the ground using a thermal imager.
“We spot this kid, and he’s laying there,” Callen recalled. “You can tell by the position of his body that he has more than likely not survived. So we get in as close as we can — we’re probably 10, 15 yards away — and we’re like, this sucks, man; this is going to be a body recovery. So as we’re trying to figure out . . . how we’re going to get him out, he starts moving, and then he starts to sit up!”
Not only was the teenager still alive, his friend who reported the fall also managed to tumble off the cliff before rescuers arrived and was lying nearby. Callen and his partner were able to retrieve both patients, but only through a very difficult toe-in landing in a tight space and gusty winds.
“I can see the thing you’re trying to fight,” Milam said. “Your mindset [is]: ‘It’s a body, let’s relax.’ And all of a sudden the kid moves. Now’s when you’ve got to be careful.”
Callen agreed: “We talk about the human factors part of it. You’d like to say and think that we all would not allow that to change your actions or what you would do,” but learning that a victim is still alive invariably ramps up the sense of urgency. “We had to really reel ourselves in,” he said.
As Everitt observed, “You’ve already drawn a picture in your head: ‘This is a deceased person.’ The plan has already fallen in your head, then he sits up. And then you go, OK, chuck that plan, time for a new plan, but it has to be as safe as the other plan.”
There’s no rank in the helicopter
When the time came for the participants to discuss their “biggest screw-ups,” it became apparent that most of these were also their biggest learning experiences. That was true for Everitt, who related his experience as a young crewman in the Irish Army Air Corps flying in an Aérospatiale Alouette. His pilot had a high-ranking friend on board, whom he was taking up to observe an exercise in the mountains.
“We were going to put him into a field beside [where] we were doing a live-fire exercise,” Everitt recalled. But when they arrived on location, the pilot and his friend — who were chatting away the whole time — decided to make a flashier entrance by landing at a small crossroads closely surrounded by stone walls.
“So we get down there, and we’re knocking around in a low hover, and [the friend] is going to jump out for all the boys in the field . . . a total glamour shot,” as Everitt put it. Everitt was looking outside directing the pilot at this point — warning him that the tail rotor was very tight to the wall in the back — but “this guy’s chatting away over what I’m telling him.”
When the time came for the friend to disembark, Everitt tapped him on the shoulder and he jumped out. As he did so, the pilot touched back on the cyclic, resulting in a tail rotor blade strike on the wall aft. The blades had to be changed in the field and the humiliated pilot had to submit a report on the accident.
Later, Everitt recollected, “His boss, which is my boss, brought me upstairs and said, ‘Do you know what you’ve learned today?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not sure.’ And he said, ‘I’ll tell you what you learned. As a crewman, it doesn’t matter who’s in that aircraft. When you’re telling him to do something and he isn’t doing it, you call it — ‘Up up up.'”
That advice 23 years ago has stuck with him to this day, he said. “When I’m in the aircraft, and we’re doing something, and I’m not happy, you’re going to know about it.”
Don’t count on being recognized for your efforts
Recognition is nice when it comes, but it’s not why any of these professionals go to work every day. Many of the people they rescue may be quickly overwhelmed by medical or personal issues related to their incidents and neglect to follow up with a “thank you.” (Others might just be embarrassed.)
And the media can be fickle. Munday recounted a swiftwater rescue he performed in Queensland, Australia, very early in his career. The next day, another team made a similar rescue in the same location, in this case using a dive bag as an improvised carrier to hoist up a small child. That rescue was captured on video, and naturally got all of the attention, Munday laughed.
However, sometimes rescues can lead to very meaningful connections. Webber recalled one extraordinary mission that occurred during a firestorm fanned by Southern California’s Santa Ana winds. Webber, in a Bell 205, had been dropping water on a fire for three or four hours when a fire crew came on the radio to say the fire was overtaking them.
“They’re starting to yell over the air that they’re getting burned over, deploying fire shelters, and you’re hearing that in the helicopter and it’s gut-wrenching,” he said. “Because there’s nothing you can do.”
As the radios fell silent and the fire burned past the crew’s location, air attack asked who would be willing to fly to the scene. Webber and the pilot of a call-when-needed aircraft volunteered.
“They could only send in one helicopter at a time because the visibility was less than a quarter mile, power lines everywhere,” Webber explained, recounting that the call-when-needed helicopter went in first and loaded several victims who were badly burned.
“He departs, I start following the power line in — I had to follow it and it is just thick smoke — I now spot the crew bus and we land next to it,” Webber said. “And the reason it sticks out for me, it was like something out of the Twilight Zone. Because I saw the crew bus earlier in the day, and it was a new one. We landed next to it, windows are blown out, it’s melted, there’s melted metal on the ground, and when we land, the fire shelters are blowing.”
Webber and his crew member were unable to find the one person who was still missing — a homeowner who, it later turned out, had gone back into his house and perished in the flames.
“Fast forward about five years later, one of the kids that was on the crew that got burned over, is now coming into our helitack team at Gillespie,” Webber said. “He comes up to me and says, ‘I hear you’re one of the guys who came in to get us.’ . . . And he was thanking me for being one of the pilots who came in to help him.”