In June 2009, a young woman named Megumi Yamamoto went hiking. She got lost high in the mountains of New Mexico. She called 911 on her cell phone.
The call went to the state police. Sergeant Andy Tingwall was a search and rescue pilot. He took off in his helicopter. Offi cer Wesley Cox fl ew with Tingwall as a spotter.
Flying a Helicopter
A helicopter is controlled with two “sticks.” One is on each side of the pilot’s seat. The stick on the left side controls speed. The pilot pulls up on the stick to go faster or pushes down to go slower. The stick on the pilot’s right controls the angle of the main rotor. To fl y forward, the rotor is tipped toward the front of the helicopter. It is tipped toward the rear to fl y backward, and to the right or left to fl y sideways. A pedal on the fl oor controls the tail rotor. This helps the helicopter turn or stay on course. To fl y, pilots must use all three of these controls at once.
They found Yamamoto in a high mountain valley. It was so high up that, even in June, snow still covered the ground. Tingwall landed in the snow. He and Cox brought the young woman on board. As they began to fl y back, however, things went wrong.
Thick clouds rolled in and surrounded the helicopter. Tingwall couldn’t see. Pilots call this “fl ying blind.” The tail rotor hit a tree, and the helicopter crashed into the snow and mud. It rolled down the mountainside, breaking into pieces as it went.
The next morning, Cox was rescued by ground search crews. He was badly injured, but he survived. Yamamoto and Tingwall were dead.
SAR fl ying is dangerous. Pilots often fl y between mountains and just above tree tops or ocean waves. They fl y at night,
in snow storms, and even in hurricanes. Rescue pilots must be able to land helicopters on ice, on steep hillsides, or in
tight spaces. Tony Reece knows the dangers well. He fl ew hundreds of SAR missions for the National Park Service. “We’ve set down in places where we knew we were going to touch some [tree] limbs,” he says. “When you get back home the rotor blades are green.”
Wind can easily blow a helicopter off course, or even tip it over. It is most dangerous when a helicopter is landing or hovering. One rescue team learned just how dangerous wind can be. In 2002, climbers were injured on Mount Hood, in Oregon. A SAR fl ight was sent to get them. As
Higher and Colder
The higher up you go, the colder the air becomes. The temperature drops about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit for each 1,000 feet you climb. That’s about 6.5 degrees Celsius for each 1,000 meters.
the helicopter tried to land, a sudden blast of wind pushed it into the side of the mountain. The helicopter crashed, injuring all six rescuers on board.
Rescue operations at sea can be very dangerous. In October 1991, a giant storm roared across the ocean near Massachusetts. Coast Guard pilot Claude Hessel and his team fl ew into the storm to rescue the crew of a sailboat.
Waves were 35 feet (10.5 meters) high. Hessel lowered the helicopter until it was just 10 feet (3 meters) above the waves. A rescue swimmer jumped into the ocean and swam to the sailboat. Crew members on the helicopter lowered a large metal basket. Hessel used the controls carefully. If a wave hit the basket the wrong way, it could pull the aircraft into the ocean. One by one, the swimmer got the sailboat’s crew into the basket. They were lifted aboard the helicopter and saved.
Altitude is another danger for rescue pilots. Helicopters are not built to fl y very high. If they fl y too high, they may crash. There are other dangers too. “Lack of oxygen is one,” says Jim Hood. He fl ies search and rescue missions in the
mountains of Alaska. “Cold is another.”
Winter rescue teams often use “snow dogs.” These specially-trained animals can “sniff out” people lost in the woods or buried by an avalanche. The dogs start their training when they are young. A dog’s handler digs a hole in the snow and hides. The dog is rewarded with a treat or play time when it fi nds the handler. Next, the handler is covered with a little bit of snow. Over time, the handler gets covered with more and more snow. The dogs learn that fi nding someone in the snow is fun, and they are eager to do it.
Hood fl ies high in spite of the dangers. In 2005, he fl ew into Canada to rescue three mountain climbers. They were
on Mount Logan, the highest mountain in Canada. A storm had blown away their tent. The only shelter was a cave
they had dug in the snow. The climbers were trapped at 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) up on the side of the mountain. Hood’s helicopter could fl y no higher than that. He made three fl ights, bringing the climbers out one at a time.
Jim Hood received a medal from the Canadian government for his work that day.
A Winter Rescue
On December 16, 2007, Frederick Dominguez and his three children got lost in the mountains of northern California. It got dark and began to snow. The kids’ mother reported them missing. Rescue helicopters searched for them. Ground teams on skis and snowshoes looked for them, too. Special dogs also helped in the search. For three nights, the family huddled together in the woods. They were wet and cold, and had no food. They stamped HELP in the snow. On the fourth day, a helicopter fl ew low over the forest. The pilot saw the HELP in the snow. The Dominguez family was saved.