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NEWS | July 27, 2020

A day in the life of a rescue helicopter pilot

By Master Sgt. Becky Vanshur Idaho Army National Guard

BOISE, Idaho – Spend a day with 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.

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 runs 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 barreling down a row of overgrown hay.

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 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday. Queen leaves his tractor in the field and rushes to change 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."

"I am always pleased when I can assist with a rescue mission; it is a great way to serve my local community," said Queen. "With over thirty years in the Army, I have had many assignments, but none so rewarding as this."

The previous evening three individuals flipped in their raft on the river. One individual was able to safely pull himself out of the water, 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 them. Elmore County Search and Rescue set up a command center nearby and started the ground search.

As soon as Air St. Luke's and the Elmore County Search and Rescue realized 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 Center dispatch, located in Florida, for assistance. The AFRCC approved the mission and called the Idaho National Guard flight operations officer.

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.

Queen and his crew arrive at Gowen Field, Boise's Air Terminal and National Guard base, around 10:30 a.m., 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 and crew are ready. They grab their 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. He performs 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.

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 helicopter's skid platform. 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 the riverbanks at low altitudes and low airspeed.

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 hoisting equipment. First aid is performed on them as they fly back to the command center where ground ambulances and an excited group of family members and friends are waiting, cheering as the helicopter lands.

It is nearing 1:00 p.m. and Queen flies the helicopter back to Gowen Field. He and his crew feel a release of tension to know they successfully helped rescue the two individuals.

Queen and his crew train for daytime and nighttime scenarios and with different rescue agencies such as fire departments, sheriff offices, forest rangers, wildland firefighters and other first responders.

"The crew can respond to assist with several emergencies like floods, fires and mountain rescues," said Queen. "We train with local first responders to assure proficiency for when it counts."

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 tires. 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 barreling 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.

 

 

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