EAGLE COUNTY — Some records save lives, such as the record 28 search and rescue operations flown by local National Guard pilots this year.
Pilots from the High Altitude Aviation Training Site in Gypsum flew to the rescue a record 28 times this year. They directly saved 14 lives. Of those missions, eight were casualty evacuations.
“That’s unheard of for us. The biggest year before this was 2006, when we flew 17 search and rescue missions,” said Maj. Tony Somogyi, HAATS commander.
Those 28 search and rescue missions don’t include this year’s Front Range floods or the missions they flew during the Rifle wildfire last fall.
Who they’re looking for seems to fluctuate each year, Somogyi said. Last year was a big year for hunters. Other years it’s hikers or snowmobilers. This year it seemed to be climbers.
“We like being the ones they call. We learn something new every time we go out. It’s a practical application of what we teach at the school house,” Somogyi said.
Most they save; some they don’t
On Sept. 23, Richard Walker, a 60-year-old climber, had summited the North Maroon Bells. He was on his way down when he slipped and fell.
“I don’t remember the slip and I don’t remember falling,” Walker said.
But he did, and he broke his jaw and his back.
It took Aspen search and rescue crews four hours to move him to a rock outcropping, where a National Guard Blackhawk helicopter had been hovering and waiting. The pilot precariously perched its right front wheel on a rock outcropping, hovering there while rescuers loaded Walker, his partner and their gear.
The video is amazing.
As spectacular as it looks, it’s about average — as long as death-defying is your norm, and the one-wheel landing is safer than using the hoist, Somogyi said.
There was the glider pilot who crashed into Glenwood Canyon where the cross is located atop a stone spire. When the HAATS crew started to hoist him out, the ground crew didn’t have him secured and he started spinning. As the HAATS crew lifted, the injured glider pilot was spinning more like a top than a presidential press secretary. So along with everything else, the guy was suffering from motion sickness. But there was nothing to be done about it. Once they start lifting, it’s not safe to set him back down.
The HAATS guys all knew that, but the ground crew didn’t. They do now. The HAATS crew is trying to teach everyone how to do it, Somogyi said.
During this year’s searches (Oct. 1, 2012-Sept. 30) they found four bodies, among them a climber on Kit Carson Mountain and a motorcyclist in Mesa County who was riding by himself and had an accident.
National Guardsmen have been up to their helmets in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of HAATS’ primary missions is to teach pilots to fly in mountainous terrain under combat conditions, but the search and rescue operations have peacetime applications, Somogyi said. They’re creating a search and rescue course they can teach to other guardsmen.
Some of the lessons are about flying, some are not.
For example, rescuers might think they they’re looking for someone waving their arms. Chances are an accident victim can’t wave their arms or anything else.
“You’re looking for a jacket that’s a specific color, or a set of ropes that will lead to a climber, that sort of thing,” Somogyi said.
FREE OF charge
HAATS doesn’t charge for rescues, and neither does Vail Mountain Rescue, said Somogyi and Dan Smith, of Vail Mountain Rescue — and for the same reasons.
“We don’t charge for rescues,” Smith said. “If we charge, then people don’t call. If they don’t call, we end up doing body recoveries.”
“If you start charging people they stop calling, and that pushes a situation from bad to worse,” Somogyi said. “If people are truly in trouble, Sheriff’s offices want people to call and not have to worry about the consequences.”
In Mountain Rescue, no one gets paid.
“We do it because we love it and love the outdoors,” Smith said.
They used to get breakfast at Denny’s in Avon, but there is no Denny’s there any longer. So it’s MREs and some of them are 20 years old.
“Those things and cockroaches will inherit the earth,” Smith said.
To use HAATS, Vail Mountain Rescue goes through the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, which coordinates military personnel with all inland rescues in the U.S.
Smith clears the mission with the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center; they get a mission number and the feds pick up the tab.
“They want to know where you’re going to fly, and it’s usually above 12,000 feet in bad weather,” Smith said.
There’s a risk assessment. If the risk is worth it, they fly. If they don’t, they either hike or take snow machines. Sometimes, they get part way to the rescue site and decide they need some aviation.
“We drop those guys and leave. They’re the true rock stars when it comes rescue operations,” Somogyi said.
In the beginning
HAATS trains helicopter pilots from around the world to fly in high altitude and mountainous terrain. It traces its origins to some masterful political arm twisting.
Dick Gustafson used to be a county commissioner, along with Don Welch and Bud Gates.
Eagle County too was short on operations – stuff happening — to get any federal money for the Eagle County Regional Airport, Gustafson said.
So Gustafson got on an airplane out of Denver and flew to Washington, D.C., for a Pentagon meeting with Gen. Herbert Temple, the guy in charge of the National Guard. Sen. Bill Armstrong set up the meeting, for 5 p.m. Friday.
Gustafson strode into Temple’s office, extended his hand and said, “I’m from Eagle, Colorado!”
Temple responded, “Where the hell is Eagle, Colorado?”
“It’s up near Vail,” Gustafson said.
Temple had heard of Vail, and after a few more similar pleasantries, they got down to business.
“How many of your enemies have mountainous territories?” Gustafson asked.
“All of them,” Temple answered.
“And how many of your pilots are trained to fly in the mountains?”
Temple’s shoulders slumped as he answered, “None of them.”
They talked about it for a while, and Temple began to see the wisdom in a mountain training center.
“What do you need?” Gustafson asked.
Temple thought about it and answered, “Sixty-five acres of land and $300,000.”
Flying back that Friday night, Gustafson called Welch and the three commissioners put it on the agenda for that Monday’s commissioner meeting. They approved it that day.
George Gillett, who had just bought the local ski company, came up with the $300,000, Gustafson said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.