Capt. Paul Sohl, left, Naval Test Wing Pacific commander, recognizes members of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 31 with Air Medals on behalf of Rear Adm. Mat Winter, NAWCWD commander, for a recent search and rescue mission in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains during a ceremony April 2 at Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division China Lake. Joining Sohl from left are Lt. Cmdr. Ken Gilbert, Lt. Jeff Hollowell and Lt. Randy Geiger of the Inyo County Sheriff's Office, AWS1 Anthony Michalski, AWS2 Erik Potter, Lt. Neal Barham, and Col. Andre Mercier, VX-31 commanding officer. (U.S. Navy photo by Mike Johnson, NAWCWD VCO)
By Lt. Brian Culver
Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 31
CHINA LAKE, Calif. - The commander of Naval Test Wing Pacific presented Air Medals to search and rescue (SAR) crewmembers from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 31 for a recent rescue mission in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains during a ceremony April 2 at Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division China Lake.
This mission was significant because it was the highest altitude from which the VX-31 Dust Devils have ever performed a successful rescue, and the first rescue for VX-31 in its new MH-60S helicopters.
Mission commander Lt. Cmdr. Ken Gilbert, with more than 5,000 flight hours and numerous rescues in mountainous terrain recalled, “This was the toughest flight I have ever done.”
On Sept. 9 2011, Gilbert, from Upland, Calif., Lt. Neal Barham, from Coronado, Calif., AWS1 Anthony Michalski, from Shawnee, Kan., AWS2 Erik Potter, from Clovis, N.M. and Yukon and Edmond, Okla., and HM2 Benjamin Hernandez departed China Lake for a SAR conference at Hume Lake, Calif. The crew landed in a clearing near Hume Lake and shut down. They met up with representatives from the Fresno Sherriff’s Office who were leading a SAR conference. This meeting is held annually and gives personnel from more than 300 search and rescue agencies across the Southwest an opportunity to look at each others’ equipment and discuss training, capabilities and coordination. Little did they know that in a few short hours their skills would be tested.
Just after 6 p.m. on Sept. 10, VX-31 was asked to assist in a rescue mission.
“We had just sat down to dinner, and somebody came in looking for the VX-31 SAR guys,” Potter said. “We said ‘yep, we’re right here’ and he told us we had a SAR.”
A cowboy had fallen off his horse in a meadow high above Cottonwood Pass, about 30 miles northeast of Paso Robles. He was severely injured and needed to get to a hospital quickly.
Gilbert recalled, “I had hiked through Cottonwood Pass just last year with my family. I remember looking at the clearing and thinking it would be a great place to land if I ever had to come up here for a rescue. When they told me where he was, I knew exactly where they were talking about, and I knew I could get in there.”
Twenty five minutes later the crew of Rescue 463 was in the air and climbing through the mountains toward the scene.
The crew followed standard procedures for evaluating the landing zone, conducting a low pass and engine power checks. They determined it was safe to land, but just barely. The landing zone was at a density altitude of 12,800 feet. The MH-60S is limited to flying no higher than 13,000 feet.
“I used every ounce of power to get in there,” recalled Gilbert. “We drooped to 99 percent Nr (main rotor RPM).” Drooping is when the helicopter’s engines are no longer providing enough power to spin the rotor blades and they slow down. “We came over the zone and my crewmen were saying ‘stop, stop, stop your forward’ and I had to tell them ‘I can’t, I don’t have enough power to stop.’ They said, ‘ok, just don’t land right here.’ We settled into translational lift and slowed down, then finally came to a stop in a 5 foot hover. Once I stabilized in ground effect I was able to pedal turn and air taxi closer to the survivor where we landed.”
Hernandez recalled, “After we landed, Potter and I grabbed our gear and began to run to the survivor. After a few steps we started to get light headed from the thin air and had to walk. We assessed his injuries, put him in a C-collar and loaded him on the stretcher. With four of us carrying the stretcher to the aircraft we got light headed again. With six of us carrying the stretcher it was a bit easier. I have never been so high that I felt like I was going to pass out like that during a rescue.”
Once the survivor was loaded on Rescue 463, Barham performed a max gross weight takeoff and was able to establish a 500 foot per minute rate of climb, barely enough to get over the 12,000 peaks they had to cross en route to Ridgecrest Regional Hospital. Due to radio problems they were unable to contact the hospital and arrange a landing there. The China Lake Fire Department had an ambulance waiting when Rescue 463 landed. The survivor was transferred into the waiting ambulance and driven to Ridgecrest Regional Hospital for further treatment.
Comment (keep it clean & on topic)