Estimated reading time 11 minutes, 30 seconds.
Certainly one of the rarest Hughes 500 series helicopters still flying, the NOH-6A flown by Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office has a long and very interesting history.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people visit beautiful Snohomish County in Washington state to enjoy the many recreational opportunities it offers, from the waterways of Puget Sound to the west, to the hiking and climbing challenges provided by the enormous peaks of the Cascades to the east. Watching over those who live, explore, and test themselves in this environment is the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) Air Support Unit and its helicopter rescue team, who have flown to the aid of those in distress, in some of the most challenging weather conditions in the continental United States, for almost 40 years.
The unit maintains a year-round, 24/7 availability, and averages about 80 search-and-rescue (SAR) callouts annually — most of which take it to the Cascades to find and recover lost or injured hikers and climbers. It has a fleet of two aircraft, with the primary rescue ship — “SnoHawk 10” — being a hoist-equipped former Army surplus Bell Helicopter UH-1H that has been heavily modified for the unit’s mission requirements over the years. The second aircraft is a 1968 Hughes NOH-6A/500P — “SnoHawk 1” — whose history as a CIA aircraft in Vietnam is a story in itself.
The SCSO helicopter rescue team consists of two full-time sheriff’s deputy pilots, one full-time deputy crew chief, and two part-time deputy tactical flight officers. The rest of the unit’s members are volunteers, including four co-pilots, nine flight medics, and, from Everett Mountain Rescue, 10 helicopter rescue technicians.
The unit’s chief pilot is Bill Quistorf, who has been with SCSO since 2000. His helicopter career began in 1971 as an Army UH-1H helicopter crew chief, door gunner and mechanic, after which he became a Boeing CH-47 pilot, and later served as a member of the Army’s High Altitude Rescue Team (HART) in Alaska. He told Vertical that falls in the Cascades, resulting in broken bones and head injuries, are the most common calls the unit responds to.
“I’d say 30 percent are rescues of fallen or badly injured climbers, and 20 percent are rescues of injured hikers or hikers with medical emergencies,” he said. “The other 50 percent of the flights are searching for lost people, snow related accidents, car-over-the-side and other incidents.”
Continuous training makes Snohomish helicopter rescue team members some of the best in the country.
SCSO’s rescue team gained international attention last year for its role following the massive landslide that wiped out an entire neighborhood near Oso, Wash., killing 43 people. The unit was the first rescue helicopter on-scene after the landslide hit, and saved the lives of many people in the first two hours following the disaster as it performed a number of hoist rescues. It was joined in the effort by neighboring agencies in the Pacific Northwest, with whom SCSO works closely — in training and operationally — throughout the year. These include King County Sheriff (which also operates a Huey), and the SAR helicopter unit at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island (which flies Sikorsky MH-60S Seahawks). The unit has also been selected by the Washington Army National Guard to augment their Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks during hoist rescue operations following any future large-scale disaster.
Although the unit performs fewer law enforcement missions than it used to, it still uses the Hughes 500P to attends callouts from ground officers when requested, as well as for the occasional patrol. “We also use the Huey to train with our SWAT teams a few times a year and have used it to train with local fire departments,” said Quistorf. “We get called out a few times a year for fires [and] conduct firefighting using a long line and FAST Bucket.”
Standard rescue equipment carried on board SnoHawk 10 includes a rescue bag with a break-apart Cascade litter and patient packaging materials, a Bauman Bag, Screamer Suits, taglines, a rescue strop, basic and advanced Lifesaving Systems bags, and oxygen. Each rescue team member wears a survival vest in addition to their rescue harness, which includes food and essentials to last 24 hours. All aircrew on both aircraft also bring a personal survival rucksack with enough equipment, food, and water for three days. Additional rescue equipment, rigging gear and ropes are brought along if the mission dictates.
A particularly innovative piece of equipment carried by the unit is something it developed in-house — a reel-operated device that is able to lower a radio down to subjects from a hovering helicopter, giving them the ability to communicate directly with rescuers. “It’s something we developed that’s easy to use and gets the job done,” said Quistorf. “We deploy it from both the helicopters.”
Volunteer crew chief Anthony Adinolfi; Air Support Unit supervisor and lead crew chief Sgt. Danny Wikstrom; volunteer flight medic Sean Edwards; volunteer helicopter rescue technician Miles Mcdonough; volunteer pilot Travis Hots; chief pilot Deputy Bill Quistorf, deputy pilot Deputy Steve Klett.
A Huey History
SCSO’s Air Support Unit was established in 1977 when it obtained an ex-Army UH-1B. The turbine-powered helicopter met all the requirements the fledgling unit had established — it had the power and capability to work in the mountains, could insert multiple rescuers, and allowed for the transport of injured subjects.
The unit has operated a light helicopter in tandem with a Huey since 1985. The first was a surplus military Bell OH-13S (the military equivalent of the Bell 47G-3B-1), which was mostly used for law enforcement, search missions, and inserting rescue team members. The aging aircraft was replaced with the very rare Hughes 500P in 1994.
Around the same time, another Huey, a UH-1H, was acquired to replace the UH-1B though the US Army surplus aircraft program.
“We needed to replace the UH-1B as parts were very hard to come by, so we received a few UH-1H airframes, with one being flyable,” said Quistorf. “We flew this H model to our base, did a complete inspection of the airframe and drivetrain, installed new radios and started operating it as the primary rescue ship.” The UH-1H’s additional power and cabin size gave the unit more capability and the ability to move even more personnel and equipment.
The aircraft has been slowly modified over the years to enhance its performance. It received BLR Aerospace’s tail boom strakes in 1998, and, a few years later, it was fitted with a Bell 205 tail boom, Bell 212 tail rotor system and gearboxes, high skid gear, flite-steps and tundra pads by Heli-Pro of Bellingham, Wash. In 2007, a Goodrich external rescue hoist was installed on the aircraft, giving the unit much more capability and safety during rescue operations.
Using top-quality rescue equipment and flying a recently overhauled Bell UH-1H, Snohomish Sheriff’s Office helicopter rescue team is ready for almost any situation.
Northwest Helicopters completed a major overhaul on the airframe in 2011, which aimed to increase both the aircraft’s service life, and its hot and high performance.
Cockpit and cabin modifications included new Garmin 430 VHF radios, Wulfsberg 800 MHz/VHF radios with encryption capability, Garmin G-500H flight displays with synthetic vision and collision avoidance, Class B night vision goggle (NVG) -compatible lighting throughout the cabin, and an upgraded external cargo hook with a remote load readout. A custom cockpit console and instrument panel and new pilot and passenger seats were also installed. “We wanted to increase the crew’s overall situational awareness with improved avionics [and] electronics,” said Quistorf. “We wanted NVG-compatible synthetic vision and synthetic terrain, and to increase crew coordination by customizing the crew chief station.”
Northwest Helicopters replaced the engine with a 1,800 shaft-horsepower Lycoming T53-703 with a Donaldson AFS inlet barrier filter, and, as part of a main transmission overhaul, upgraded the transmission housing and zero timed all the rotating components, including the rotor head, 42 degree gearbox, and 90 degree gearbox. A service life extension program saw all the aircraft’s electronic, hydraulic, and fuel systems inspected, as well as all flight controls and the airframe itself.
Finally, the cabin and floor were refinished, and the aircraft given a new high quality custom paint scheme. All told, SCSO received what was essentially a new Huey. “Northwest Helicopters did a terrific job,” said Quistorf. “The helicopter now flies as good as it looks.”
The ability to be fully NVG-compatible was something that was particularly important to Quistorf, who was an NVG flight instructor during his time in the Army. He had previously applied for grant funds for four sets of NVGs, and set up the unit’s NVG training program. “Today, all our flight crew members and nearly all of our rescue team members are NVG qualified,” said Quistorf. “Without NVGs, the remote, mountain rescue missions that we conduct could simply not be accomplished. Being able to hold an OGE [out of ground effect] hover, at 6,800 feet, at night, next to a mountaintop, is extremely challenging — and the only way to confidently and safely conduct this is with NVGs.”
Weather is a major concern during many months of the year, but safe flights are possible due to the crews’ many years of local experience and understanding of the terrain.
A Challenging Environment
The weather of the Pacific Northwest can, at times, be treacherous — particularly in the Cascades, where many of the unit’s rescues take place. Quistorf said that while the summer months provide more consistent conditions, late September through May sees sudden changes in weather, bringing storms, rain, snow, fog, and low ceilings.
“Flying in the Pacific Northwest is interesting as a pilot, but is also very challenging,” he said. “We don`t go out and do anything without thinking it through. Working in the Cascade Mountains takes understanding and skill, as we deal with everything from turbulence, high winds, and high altitudes, to quickly changing weather patterns. Sometimes you need to know when to just land and wait out the weather. The Pacific Northwest is always a place to be respected.”
The same ethos carries through to those working in the cabin. Richard Duncan, a volunteer SCSO rescue team flight paramedic, told Vertical that the nature of the unit’s operations required paramedics who were experienced in year-round backcountry movement techniques, basic mountaineering practices, and technical high angle rope rigging principals. “Paramedics are chosen not only for their medical skills, but also for their ability to function as a member of a team and autonomously when inserted into remote locations,” he said. However, the medical skills required of the flight paramedics are extensive. Often working only with a single emergency medical technician (EMT) partner, the paramedic provides advanced life support, including establishing advanced airways, reducing dislocations, and the administration of medications including paralytics and intravenous antibiotics.
The unit’s rescue technicians are all active members in good standing with the county’s volunteer search-and-rescue and mountain rescue organization, and maintain a Washington state EMT certification. They must demonstrate strong rope rigging techniques and be proficient mountaineers.
Miles Mcdonough, who has been a rescue technician with the unit since 2010, told Vertical that he was passionate about helping those who are lost or injured and beyond the reach of ground emergency services. “The Snohomish County rescue team provides a truly unique service by combining a hoist equipped helicopter [with] world class pilots specializing in mountainous flying,” he said. “The subjects that we fly for often have no other recourse for getting a timely rescue, proper medical treatment, and rapid transport to a definitive health care facility. Realistically, with the weather and terrain [in which] we operate, if the helicopter rescue team wasn’t available, many people wouldn`t have come home and recovered to continue their lives. Honestly, this is the reason we do this, to make a difference.”
It’s this dedication to helping those in need that has driven the SCSO ASU’s helicopter rescue team for almost 40 years. And with an upgraded primary platform, offering the latest equipment and avionics, it now has the aircraft to help take that mission well beyond its half century, and continue to make a difference in the lives of those living or visiting this corner of the Pacific Northwest.