A day in the life of a rescue helicopter pilot
Spend a day with US Idaho farmer and Guardsman Chief Warrant Officer 4 Chad Queen, one of the Idaho Army National Guard’s rescue helicopter pilots and feel firsthand what it is like to fly the UH-72 Lakota helicopter and help save lives. Queen said, “I am always pleased when I can assist with a rescue mission, it is a great way to serve my local community. With over thirty years in the Army, I have had a lot of assignments but none so rewarding as this.” Queen and his crew train for daytime and night time scenarios and with different rescue agencies such as fire departments, sheriff offices, forest rangers, wildland fire fighters and other first responders. “The crew can respond to assist with several emergency situations like floods, fires and mountain rescues,” said Queen. “We train with local first responders to assure proficiency for when it counts.” Idaho’s two UH-72 helicopters belong to the IDARNG Detachment 1, Delta Company, 112th Service and Support Battalion. They have a unique hoist and lift rescue attachment and are strictly used for domestic operations and rescues.
The clunking and puttering sounds of the tractor are too loud and the vibration from the engine on his leg masked the familiar feeling of the phone ringing in his pocket so he missed the call. Not 30 seconds later, his wife is running toward him from the ranch house with a phone in her hand and her arms waving above her, motioning for him to stop, as he is barrelling down a row of overgrown hay. Queen brings the tractor to a halt and idles the engine. He takes the call from his wife’s phone. An Idaho National Guard flight operations officer is on the line. “We have a possible rescue, can you assemble a crew?” A crew consists of the pilot, a crew chief and a paramedic. Today, there are two individuals lost on the South Fork of the Boise River near Elmore County, north of Mountain Home, Idaho. It is a warm summer day; just after 10h00am on a Saturday. Queen leaves his tractor in the field and rushes to change out of his dusty farm clothes and into his flight suit. He calls his crew to help, kisses his wife and gets into his car, all within a few minutes. Queen calls the flight operations officer. “We are 30 minutes out.”
The previous evening three individuals flipped in their raft on the river. One individual was able to pull himself out of the water safely, walking several hours to find a phone around midnight and call for help. He did not see his two friends get out of the river. Air St Luke’s flew up and down the river throughout the night, unable to find either of the individuals. Elmore County Search and Rescue set up a command centre nearby and started the ground search.
As soon as Air St Luke’s and the Elmore County Search and Rescue realised the lost individuals could be down in a river canyon and unreachable, they requested the Idaho Army National Guard’s UH-72 Lakota helicopter. They called the Air Force Rescue Coordination Centre dispatch, located in Florida, for assistance. The AFRCC approved the mission and called the Idaho National Guard flight operations officer.
Queen and his crew arrive at Gowen Field, Boise’s Air Terminal and National Guard base, around 10h30am and begin preparing the helicopter for its flight. Using a preflight checklist, Queen ensures the fuel amount is accurate for the mission with the weight of the crewmembers and the additional approximate weight of the rescued individuals. The crew chief ensures the aircraft is ready for the mission and Queen gathers the map, the route and coordinates, weather data and any other information needed from a preflight brief with the flight operations officer.
The helicopter is ready and crew are ready. They grab their personal survival bags, helmets and harnesses. Queen is sitting in the cockpit and taxis the helicopter onto the open space of the flight line. He lifts up on the collective and brings the helicopter a few feet above the ground for several seconds, performing a hover check to calculate power requirements with the combined calculations of weight adjustments, weather, altitude and fuel amount. Queen performs final radio checks and they take off high into the air, heading east away from Gowen Field, toward Mountain Home.
Queen speaks through his headset. “Five minutes out from the location site.” The crew chief attaches his tether to the tether of the hoist. He tugs on it firmly, going through the motions of several series of operational checks on the equipment. The hoist equipment is ready.
Both the crew chief and the paramedic hang out of the helicopter on the ledge of each side, searching the ground below them, their feet resting on the skid platform of the helicopter. The helicopter blades are rotating loudly above them.
They search deep into the gulches near the river. They fly up and down the river, searching in the water and alongside the riverbanks at a low altitude and low air speed. Two individuals are spotted walking on a dirt road in a narrow canyon area. Queen lands in a nearby opening. The paramedic jumps out of the helicopter and runs to the two individuals. Fortunately, they are the lost individuals and are only suffering from minor injuries and dehydration.
The individuals are rescued without the need for the hoist equipment and first aid is performed on them as they fly back to the command centre where ground ambulances and a large excited group of family members and friends are waiting, cheering as the helicopter lands.
It is nearing 13h00 and Queen flies the helicopter back to Gowen Field. He and his crew feel a release of tension to know they successfully helped in the rescue of the two individuals.
Queen taxis the helicopter toward the hanger at Gowen Field. He and his crew perform the post flight checklist and debrief, positioning the helicopter in the hanger, preparing it for the next rescue.
Queen drives up his gravel driveway hearing the familiar crisp sound of the rock under his tyres. It is late in the afternoon now. He quickly eats a sandwich, changes back into his farm clothes and walks up the already swathed row of hay, toward his tractor. He climbs into his tractor and begins barrelling down the row that he had abandoned earlier, feeling the warmth of the hot summer sunlight on his face and a sense of relief from the day’s successful rescue mission.
Source: Master Sgt Becky Vanshur, Idaho Army National Guard
US Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt Becky Vanshur