NEWS | July 6, 2021

Virginia Guard aviation crews train on rooftop rescue hoists

By Mike Vrabel, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs Office

CHESTERFIELD, Va. – Virginia National Guard aviation crews and Chesterfield County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Scuba Rescue Team members trained on rescue hoist operations June 8-10. 

The VNG aviators and Chesterfield rescue crews make up the Virginia Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team, providing rotary-wing rescue hoist capabilities for aerial evacuations. The VNG and Chesterfield County have sharpened their skills for years during quarterly training exercises. 

HART practiced confined space rescue hoists from car rooftops and buildings at the Chesterfield Public Safety Training Center during the June training. 

On the final day of the exercise, VNG aviators flew their specially outfitted UH-60 Black Hawk over a multistory concrete building used to train Chesterfield firefighters. The team practiced rescue hoists from balconies and parapets, requiring precise placement of a Scuba Rescue Team member to reach a survivor, harness them in, and lift them to safety. 

"Periodically, we get the opportunity, when Chesterfield's training site isn't being used, to use the tower assembly," said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Shane Leipertz, one of HART's pilots and the standardization pilot for the Virginia Army National Guard. "This creates a real dynamic for the crew, with much more of a sense of realism and urgency. The more of that we can do obviously, the more prepared we're going to be."

Chesterfield firefighter Justin Bennett, the HART training officer, said working in elevated, confined spaces presents unique challenges. 

"We're using a balcony as a more confined space. It's challenging; it's something different than an open field," said Bennett. "When you start getting into more elevated positions of confined space, it makes it challenging for everybody. It's challenging for the technicians going down the hoist and for the pilots as far as reference points and hovering goes. But, it's no problem. We do the same thing whether it's up high or down low. We do the same process each time."

The partnership the two organizations have built over 10 years is a solid one, Bennett said. 

"It started in 2011 just talking with each other and it developed from that. We started out doing hoists with the Lakotas with minimal gear. It started small," said Bennett. "Now, it's just amazing, the crew coordinations that take place inside the aircraft. It's second to none. I know what the crew chief is going to do. He knows what I'm going to do. As civilians with the fire department, technicians riding with the Guard, it's amazing how far it's come."

Leipertz said that partnership is especially vital in planning for hurricane response. 

"We're a coastal state. We need to pay particular attention to the Hampton Roads areas in terms of our preparation, and working with our partners around the state and with other states," said Leipertz. 

The HART provides a unique capability to support the Virginia Department of Emergency Management during storms and floods, according to Bryan Saunders, the VDEM chief of Search and Rescue Programs. 

"The HART program is an amazing addition to Virginia's response to those impacted by disasters," said Saunders. "Having these resources within Virginia not only gives us a faster response to the disaster but also provides valuable input as to the capabilities of other hoist-type rescue teams as they begin populating the roster in the Air Ops Branch."

That quick and skilled response capability is important with the onset of hurricane season, which officially began June 1, but Saunders said HART's capabilities are valuable year-round. 

"HART, along with the United States Coast Guard, will provide some of the first responses to areas impacted by storms," said Saunders. "Obviously, as roads are not passable, and water rescue teams have not made it their response areas, HART stands a better chance of executing those rescues. As we build the relationship with the VANG, we hope that, in the future, HART will be a deployable asset on blue sky days, to assist in the everyday austere environment rescues that go on throughout Virginia."