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NEWS | Dec. 19, 2006

Military Aircrews Continue Supporting Mount Hood Rescue Effort

By Donna Miles American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON - After finding the body of one missing climber on Mount Hood, Ore., members of the Oregon Army National Guard, Nevada Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve continued the search Monday for two other lost climbers.

Rescue crews, joined by civilian volunteers, planned to take advantage of clearing weather after several days of snow, ice and winds hampered earlier efforts, Capt. Christopher Bernard of the Air Force Reserve's 304th Rescue Squadron, based in Portland, told reporters.

The 304th Rescue Squadron was the first aircrew on the scene Dec. 11 after three climbers went missing after they set out Dec. 7 for what was to be a two-day climbing trip, Air Force Staff Sgt. Nick Przybyciel, of the 446th Airlift Wing at McChord Air Force Base, Wash., told American Forces Press Service.

Nine pararescue team members and three combat rescue officers conducted ground surveillance through Dec. 14 before pausing operations during inclement weather as they geared up to launch the air mission, Przybyciel said.

The squadron left one crewmember on the mountain to serve as a spotter for a Nevada Air National Guard C-130 Hercules aircraft. The aircraft is part of the only Air Force wing equipped with "scathe view" technology that provides real-time imagery of ground activity via electro-optical and infrared sensors mounted on military aircraft, Przybyciel explained.

Meanwhile, three Oregon Army National Guard helicopter crews joined the search Dec. 15. Twelve flight crews and medics aboard two UH-60 Black Hawks from the 1042nd Medical Company (Air Ambulance), based in Salem, and a CH-47D Chinook from Detachment 1, D Company, 113th Aviation Battalion, based in Pendleton, are involved in the search.

Monday morning, a Nevada Air National Guard C-130 Hercules aircraft from Reno headed to the summit to retrieve a body found in a snow cave yesterday on Mount Hood's north face. Although officials declined to name the climber during a news conference, family members said it was 48-year-old Kelly James.

Joe Wimpler, Mount Hood County sheriff, compared locating the snow cave to finding "a needle in a haystack" and praised the "excellent spot on the part of the air crews."

The search for James' companions, Brian Hall and Jerry Cooke, has narrowed to "The Gullies," an avalanche-prone area with a sheer 2,500-foot drop. It's still too dangerous to put ground crews in the area, Wimpler said, but search-and-rescue efforts are continuing from the air.

Bernard noted that the aircrews involved in the operation are combat veterans who have served in the mountains of Afghanistan. "There's a wide set of skills coming together to support this mission," he said.

Despite the lack of good news, officials expressed optimism that the missing two climbers may still be alive. "There definitely is hope," Bernard said.

Army Col. Dave Greenwood, the Oregon Army Guard’s state aviation officer who has been flying Black Hawk missions during the search, said the military is uniquely qualified to carry out the mission. "When we see something like this, we realize that we're the only ones with our type of capabilities, so we are always ready to roll," he said.

The Oregon Guard typically conducts about 20 search-and-rescue missions a year, but few of this magnitude, he said.

Greenwood noted that since returning from Afghanistan in March, the Oregon Guard helicopter crews spent 43 days this summer fighting wildfires. "It just never stops," he said. "It's a lot of missions for these guys."