Mission: saving lives

Colorado National Guard
Story by Master Sgt. Cheresa D. Clark

Date: 12.30.2011
Posted: 01.05.2012 13:04
News ID: 82048
Mission: saving lives

GYPSUM, Colo. -- More than a schoolhouse, the High-altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site in Gypsum, Colo., is the home of some of the nation’s most experienced and dedicated search-and-rescue professionals. And they don’t need any special equipment to do it.

This story is the third in a series of three about Colorado’s High-altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site in Gypsum, Colo.

Search, rescue, recovery

More than just a schoolhouse, the High-altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site in Gypsum, Colo., is the home of some of the nation’s most experienced and dedicated military search-and-rescue professionals.

And they don’t need any special equipment to do it.

“That’s why it’s so important to be a good aeroscout,” said HAATS Executive Officer Maj. Tony Somogyi. “We use our eyeballs and binoculars, and we’ve learned to distinguish between animal and human sign. For example, we know that unless they’re hypothermic, humans usually follow easy paths.”

On average, HAATS personnel are called to assist civil authorities at least a dozen times a year. Since Oct. 1, they’ve already flown five SAR missions and saved five lives. In fiscal year 2010, they flew approximately 40 hours and saved 12 lives. In FY 11, they flew 78 hours and saved 7 lives, attributing the less successful missions to being called late in multi-day missions.

Defining success

Though not every mission results in a life saved, Somogyi defines nearly all rescue or recovery missions as successful. “If we find a body, we bring closure to the family, so that’s just as important to us.”

Nearly every pilot and crew chief at HAATS has been involved in a SAR mission – some multiple times – and ultimately, most describe their lifesaving mission as one of the most important and rewarding aspects of their jobs.

Maj. Tony Somogyi, HAATS executive officer

Somogyi tells of one of his easiest rescues, in which a man on a split-board snowboard was rescued on Hagerman Pass near Basalt, Colo. After riding down the mountain on his snowboard, the man was supposed to ski back up to the hut and rejoin his friends. When he didn’t appear that night, his friends called for help. The man dug a snow cave to survive the night and searchers were dispatched the next day. Somogyi and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Carl Gray set out in an OH-58 Kiowa, just ahead of the SAR group, and, following their aeroscout hunches, found the missing snowboarder right away – just as the UH-60 Black Hawk loaded with rescue personnel launched.

“In SAR cases like this, where the victim does everything right and the outcome is positive, it makes it all worthwhile,” said Somogyi. “But sometimes, you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.”

He recalled another mission in which a hunter had broken his ankle in a scree field – an area full of boulders located on the side of a hill, typically the result of some sort of sliding action. The rescue team of 14 members was able to get the victim down the scree field during the night, but was unable to find a way farther down the mountain due to slick conditions caused by the evening’s freeze.

“When we showed up on scene in our little OH-58 Kiowa, we were informed that we would need to take the victim and as many of the searchers out as possible,” said Somogyi. Fortunately, it was a short flight to the incident command post, so starting with the victim, they proceeded to rescue not only the injured hunter, but the 14 SAR personnel as well.

In October, Somogyi participated in his most rewarding SAR case to date.

“We were called to search for a 65-year-old hunter who had been missing for 36 hours. The weather had been rolling in and out, the hunter had a bad knee, and troops in a UH-60 were unsuccessful in locating him the afternoon before,” he said. “We didn’t hold out much hope that we’d be any better.”

Somogyi and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mark Grayson launched for the search area, dodging weather along the way. After a morning of searching their assigned area, bad weather and low fuel propelled them to lower their expectations.

“We went to get gas and look at the weather again,” said Somogyi. “We contemplated not returning to the search area because we didn’t feel we were being very effective having to deal with low visibility and high winds, but we decided to return to the area on the way home.”

Lucky for the hunter, they did.

“We were getting ready to leave again after searching near a hilltop, because the visibility was dropping fast, when we saw a hunter waving from the treeline,” said Somogyi. “I was almost positive it was who we were looking for, because his response was so different from other hunters, so we landed to confirm. I got out, walked down the hill to him and confirmed it was our man.”

Somogyi walked the hunter to the helicopter, gave him some much-needed water, secured him inside and delivered him to the incident command post.

“Come to find out, he’d slipped and hit his head, and had been in and out of consciousness for the two days he was missing,” said Somogyi. “He never had the faculties or dry tinder to light a fire, so he was very lucky to be alive, I thought.”

Apparently the incident command felt the same, because medical personnel determined that the hunter needed to be flown directly to the hospital in Rifle, Colo., and with the poor weather, no civilian air ambulance would launch to get him there. Somogyi and Grayson flew out of the low visibility and delivered the victim to the hospital emergency staff without further incident.

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Anders R. Nielsen, HAATS instructor pilot

Nielsen has been involved in about a dozen SAR missions. His most memorable took place in October 2005, in the Ansel Adams wilderness area in California, where he rescued four men who were trapped in the snow for seven days following an unexpected blizzard. The skies opened up just long enough to perform the rescue and he used tabular data to plan his fuel down to 100 pounds.

“I had to burn enough fuel down in order to take on the weight of passengers, so by the time I landed at the assembly area, I had to get a fuel truck to fill up. One of the wives told me I gave her the best birthday present of her life.”

For his efforts Nielsen was recognized by the American Red Cross.

Lt. Cmdr. Shane Hill, Coast Guard H-60 Jayhawk pilot

Hill is the newest service member assigned to HAATS, and the only Coast Guard instructor.

While stationed at Cape Cod, Mass., on Nov. 13, 2003, a perfect storm arose in the Atlantic, creating 75- to 100-foot waves and 75- to 100-knot winds. In the dark of the night, he responded to a distress call from a vessel carrying five Italian sailors, who were forced to abandon ship. Despite the darkness and treacherous conditions, and despite the fact that neither the sailors, nor his French Canadian exchange copilot could speak English, he and his crew rescued all five men.

Hill’s actions earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Master Sgt. Greg Clancy, HAATS first sergeant

In combat and garrison, Clancy is the resident expert on downed aircraft recoveries, but rather than dwell on those sights and smells, he focuses on positive experiences. Perhaps his most memorable SAR mission involved a flood, a rooftop, and a family’s pet.

In late July 1997, rain fell for three days straight on several northeastern Colorado counties. Blocked by foothills, the area was caught in a monsoon; in less than 10 hours, the downpour was responsible for more than half the average annual rainfall for the area.

In Atwood and Sterling, Colo., approximately 13,700 acres of agricultural land were swamped, and 1,600 homes and businesses were flooded. Clancy, a UH-1 Huey crew chief, was responsible for helping rescue a number of families off rooftops and deliver them to safety.

One of the first missions of the day involved three generations of a family who had escaped the flood and found refuge on the roof of their home. Their small dog, who was apparently disturbed by the helicopter hovering nearby, refused to be rescued, and the children were frantic. Clancy proceeded to help the human family members onto the helicopter and the pilots delivered them all to a nearby bridge. Not to be outdone by a cantankerous canine, however, Clancy pledged he’d return later with the dog.

His pilots chided him for making such assurances. “They told me, ‘You can’t make promises like that.’ I said, ‘Why not?’”

Six hours later, on what would be one of the last the last missions of the day, Clancy climbed onto the roof of that house and persevered in the race against the dog. Minutes later, with a tiny furball as a passenger, the Huey returned to the bridge, where the children were still waiting for their beloved pet.

Savage family, search-and-rescue survivors

Marshall Savage, his wife and daughter MacKensie were rescued from the bottom of Grizzly Creek Canyon, Colo., in 1999. In a letter dated July 8 of that year to Col. Joel Best, former HAATS commander, Marshall wrote, “Nothing I can say will approximate my feeling of gratitude for the actions of all involved in getting my wife and baby girl out of that desperate trap.”

He goes on to describe the pilot and crew chief as “certifiable heroes” with “dedication and courage that are well beyond the bounds of any reasonable call to duty.”

In December 2011, he provided a current photo of his daughter, who is now a teenager and beginning her acting career, and again passed along his gratitude for saving his family.

Rescue process

“The mountain rescue organizations we have a habitual relationship with will call us first to make sure we have the people and aircraft available so we can start preparing for a mission,” said Somogyi. “If we’re available, they’ll call the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Face Base in Florida, then AFRCC relays through the Colorado National Guard Joint Operations Center to us, and that’s how we get the official notification.”

Though HAATS has a number of good working relationships with the search and rescue groups throughout the state, it works most often with the Vail Mountain Rescue Group, Eagle County and Summit County officials. Saguache, Chafee and Garfield Counties are also major customers.

“Vail Mountain’s probably our biggest customer because they’re right here,” said Somogyi. “They know to develop a situation on the ground, and then when they determine they need a helicopter, they’ll call us first to determine whether it’s worth their time to call AFRCC.”

According to Colorado National Guard statistics, HAATS performs up to 57 percent of all rotary-wing search-and-rescue missions in the U.S.

“We probably get called more than any other state in the lower 48,” said Somogyi. “Colorado as a whole has the AFRCC process down to a science.”

HAATS is also beginning to field calls from other SAR organizations across the state.

“Fortunately and unfortunately, our name is out there and people are asking questions,” said Somogyi. “Everybody wants to train with us now.”

Current civil agency training

HAATS trains with civilian agencies approximately once a quarter, though most often it’s on-the-job training during actual SAR missions. At a minimum, though, whenever possible, soldiers provide static-load training to rescue personnel and allow search dogs exposure to the site, smell and sound of running helicopters, Somogyi said.

In 2011, search-and-rescue personnel in Vail, Colo., hosted a national SAR conference, and HAATS professionals were on hand to educate officials from other states about the AFRCC request process, the capabilities of different aircraft the National Guard can offer their states, and how to foster relationships with local National Guard units in order to help improve the AFRCC request process, Somogyi said.

Scouting for a national SAR schoolhouse

One thing that’s evident in most of their SAR missions is that civilian search agencies don’t always understand what HAATS can provide, so we want to educate them, said Clancy.

Additionally, Somogyi says, “the aeroscout mindset that ‘You’re the eyes and ears for ground force’ – that skill set – is going away.”

“As an aeroscout, if I find someone and the ground guys aren’t there, and I can’t communicate with them to get them on target, I’m a wasted asset,” he said. “We’ve also learned that a lot of pilots don’t have an aeroscout background. So how do we train our own guys?”

It’s because of those reasons and more that HAATS Soldiers want to create a national-level SAR schoolhouse to teach military and civilian SAR personnel the basics of how to work with AFRCC, how to be involved as a searcher and not involved in the emergency, swiftwater search-and-rescue, how to break down a search area, how to interact with other SAR organizations, and give them experience with a hoist, among other topics.

“A SAR group may not know what to ask for, and a utility or attack helicopter pilot may not understand an aeroscout’s proactive mindset – or lost person behavior – so we really just want to share information,” said Somogyi.

“We also want to engage with U.S. Northern Command and AFRCC, to help them understand the process on ground more clearly,” said Somogyi. “We want to partner with civilian agencies for their expertise, and leverage Title XIV expertise from the Coast Guard.

Back-country safety

The Vail Mountain Rescue Group is a nonprofit unit of volunteers who are trained and prepared to respond to any type of back-country emergency, and is one of HAATS’ biggest customers. The group offers these relatively common suggestions that can go a long way in preventing people from getting lost – and if they do, helping them stay alive.

• Before you go, tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back.
• Have that person call 911 if you’re overdue.
• Never travel in the back country alone. Always have at least one other person with you.
• Don’t separate. Travel at the speed of the slowest person in the group.
• Winter or summer, decisions should always be made on the basis of all to go and only one to say no.
• Carry enough gear to be out overnight, including light, food, fire, water and clothing.
• Carry a whistle. It can be heard much farther than your voice. Protocol dictates one blast for searchers and a three-blast response for lost parties.
• Water is essential. It’s hard to carry too much and easy to carry too little.
• A map, a compass and if possible a GPS, are essentials. Look at the map before you go and familiarize yourself with the area in which you’ll be traveling.
• Don’t forget your cell phone. Many trails have cell coverage. Text messages and 911 calls may get through when other calls don’t.