Blevins: GCSAR trains for helicopter rescue operations
A seldom-used but vital resource for search and rescue teams in Colorado is the High-Altitude Army Air National Guard Aviation Training Site (HAATS) located at the Eagle County Airport. Helicopter pilots from around the world are trained “at the Graduate Level” for high altitude operations. In addition to the pilot training, they offer ground technician hoist training. Grand County Search and Rescue (GCSAR) recently joined 12 other mountain rescue teams for this hoist training.
HAATS will only respond when there is a life threat, alternative extraction measures pose an undue risk to rescuers, and commercial/air medical resources are not appropriate for the terrain or conditions. Imagine a windy mountaintop at 12,000 feet, no possible landing zone, a life threatening injury, and no safe method of extrication by a SAR team. This situation meets the request criteria for a HAATS response. HAATS may also respond for aerial reconnaissance and ground crew insertion that meet the life threat criteria.
HAATS commander Major Tony Somogyi said “we flew 29 missions last year, 36 live hoists (including insert and extract), 29 lives saved.”
The ground crew training for such a hoist operation consists of receiving the litter, rope bag, and equipment for patient packaging, all lowered by cable from the hovering helicopter. The crew chief on board the helicopter operates the winch and directs the pilot based on hand signals from the ground to position the helicopter for lowering the cable hook. The hook is lowered with 250 feet of cable from a winch. The litter is assembled, the patient secured in the litter, and the harness is readied for the cable hook. A designated ground team member grabs the hook, hands it off to the patient attendant who secures the hook to harness, while another team member handles any loose cable. Simultaneously, the patient attendant holds the hook assembly up off the patient while another team member signals the helicopter to begin hoisting. To keep the litter from spinning on ascent, a rope tag line is attached to the litter (with a Velcro break-away strap) and the rope team stabilizes the litter on ascent. The hovering helicopter winches the litter into the ship, disconnects the rope tag line and drops it, and then departs.
Each team completed many repetitions of litter lowering and hoisting. There are seven ground crew positions optimally; however, our trainer progressively reduced available members to force multiple responsibilities on fewer people. For first-time attendees, all training was on a concrete tarmac within a marked boundary that represented a rocky precipice. All ground operations were confined within this area to simulate actual terrain. Attendees who had received prior training operated in in the nearby hills (referred to as the Dust Bowl).
Three different types of helicopters were utilized, and each team had several repetitions with each type. For extrication or recovery operations, the UH-60 Black Hawk is the most likely responding aircraft, but we also trained with the UH-72 Lakota and the CH-47 Chinook.
Ground communication is primarily hand signals due to the noise. Cable management on the ground is the most critical safety dimension. Imagine loose coils of 3/8-inch cable blowing around seven people and the litter in a very confined area, and the helicopter may have to abruptly reposition or even leave the scene at any time. We learned specific cable handling techniques to minimize the danger. “Situational awareness” was the key term for all SAR ground personnel. In addition to your specific ground task, you had to monitor the position of the helicopter to know the direction of litter lift-off. The Chinook has a “belly hatch” and raises the patient in a vertical position. All other helicopters receive the litter in a horizontal position from the side of the aircraft, and are offset from ground team to maintain eye contact.
The training was all full-speed, hands-on, in the rotor wash with spinning cable loops around us. Rotor wash is exfoliating, blows out ear plugs, and unties shoelace knots. Then we trained another three hours after dark. All SAR team members sampled the night vision goggles used by the helicopter crew, so we could understand their vision of the site. Cable hooks and the litter were marked with chemical light strips for nighttime training.
Grand County Search and Rescue (GCSAR) now has a core group that can function as ground crew for helicopter hoist operations as part of our repertoire of rescue tactics. Hats off to HAATS personnel conducting the training and a shout out to the Salvation Army food truck for feeding us.
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