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Heroes: Defined

By Staff Writer | November 1, 2009
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Cool composure in the midst of chaos. Presenting the winners of the 2009 Rotor & Wing Helicopter Herosim Awards, who personify the meaning of the word heros.


U.S. Coast Guard 2008 Alaska Ranger


One of the Largest Coldwater Rescues in Modern History

Brian McLaughlin - Lt.

Steve Bonn - Lt.

Robert DeBolt - AMT2

O’Brien Hollow - AST2

At 3:00 am on March 23, 2008, a fishing vessel called the Alaska Ranger, a 192-foot factory trawler, broadcasted a distress call reporting that it had lost its rudder and was taking on water in the Bering Sea 120 nm west of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The crew of CGNR 6007, forward deployed to remote St. Paul Island, was alerted and launched. They immediately encountered poor visibility, 30-knot winds and low ceilings for the transit to the last known position of the Alaska Ranger. While en route, Lt. Brian McLaughlin and Lt. Steve Bonn coordinated with USCG Cutter Munro to transfer any survivors to the flight deck of the cutter, as it would be the closest offload point if multiple sorties were required. Still 50 nm from the scene, 6007 received the Alaska Ranger’s final distress call. The vessel had developed an irrecoverable 45-degree list, all but seven crewmembers had abandoned ship, and though all of them had donned anti-exposure suits, many of them had been unable to get into life rafts. Realizing the gravity of the situation, 6007 quickly prepared to rescue the vessel’s crew from the frigid Bering Sea.

From left to right, USCG Lt. Brian McLaughlin, Lt. Steve Bonn and AMT2 Robert DeBolt took part in the March 2008 rescue in Alaska’s Bering Sea. Not shown: O’Brien Hollow. Mark Cavich Photo

By the time CGNR 6007 arrived on scene, the Alaska Ranger had indeed sunk, leaving behind an ocean littered with its 47 crew members both in rafts and anti-exposure suits, their blinking strobe lights the only visual indication of the missing ship. The helicopter crew quickly assessed the scene and approached the first group of survivors. With no other USCG unit closer than 80 miles, they could communicate only with the sister ship of the Ranger, the Alaska Warrior. CGC Munro had stated that the seas exceeded the cutter’s limits to launch their deployed helicopter, CGNR 6566, thus the crew of CGNR 6007 understood that they were the only available asset to provide immediate assistance. As AMT2 Robert DeBolt and AST2 O’Brien Hollow jettisoned any non-essential gear into the ocean to make room for survivors in the cabin, Bonn brought the helicopter into a 40-foot hover and the crew quickly began hoisting survivors out of the water. The crew battled blinding, disorienting snow squalls, -5 degree F wind chills, 36-degree water, 25-foot breaking seas and intense darkness as they began their operations at 5:05 a.m. on Easter Sunday.

Hoisting proved to be extremely challenging. Snow squalls caused whiteout effects with the aircraft’s hover lights, forcing the pilots to secure lighting to maintain visual hover reference with the water beneath. While helpful in that respect, the lack of light caused Hollow and any survivors to disappear from DeBolt’s view. Hollow worked unrelentingly in the water for almost an hour, recovering 12 survivors one-by-one while DeBolt squeezed them all carefully into the cabin. DeBolt conned Bonn into position with expert precision, anticipating the motion and travel of the seas. While in the water, Hollow conducted on-scene triage of survivors then placed them in the rescue basket amidst the crashing waves. Hollow and DeBolt struggled to maintain enough hoist cable to keep the devices near the survivors, yet not too much so as to entangle anyone in the water. With strobe lights still flashing at them from every direction, the CGNR 6007 crew made the gut-wrenching decision to recover Hollow and bring the survivors they had to safety, as the aircraft cabin had reached its capacity.

Communicating with the Alaska Warrior, now only 5 nm away, McLaughlin coordinated offload of the survivors there, as it would minimize time off-scene but they were unable to offload there. The crew was again faced with the difficult decision of departing scene as the tumultuous sea state and rigging of the Warrior would not allow for safe offload of the survivors.

Departing to CGC Munro, CGNR 6007 learned that CGNR 6566 had been able to launch. CGNR 6007 provided crucial survivor locations to CGNR 6566 as well as to CGNR 1705 and the Warrior, allowing those assets to continue rescue operations. Dealing with severely hypothermic and shock-stricken survivors, Hollow and DeBolt worked tirelessly during the transit to help the survivors maintain consciousness while staving off the effects of the cold. As CGNR 6007 arrived at CGC Munro, Bonn hovered over the pitching and rolling flight deck while DeBolt and Hollow offloaded the survivors in the rescue basket. The crew then executed an extremely challenging night helicopter in-flight refueling (HIFR) evolution, a maneuver none of the crew had ever performed before. This enabled them to return and render further assistance.

Refueled, CGNR 6007 departed the cutter and returned to the survivors of the Alaska Ranger, 60 nm away. The crew would learn that CGNR 6566’s rescue swimmer, AST3 Abram Heller, remained in a raft with survivors as CGNR 6566 returned to CGC Munro. Arriving on scene, CGNR 6007 immediately located the raft and again made an approach to the water to begin hoisting. CGNR 6007 hoisted three more survivors from the raft with the help of Heller, then hoisted Heller as well. CGNR 6007 then located a fourth crewmember and hoisted him to the helicopter. With the cabin deck iced over and the crewmember’s anti-exposure suit waterlogged with more than 100 pounds of water, DeBolt and Heller were unable to pull Hollow and the crewmember the last few feet into the cabin. Using remarkable ingenuity given his precarious position outside the helicopter, Hollow sliced the boots of the crewmember’s suit with his survival knife, draining the water and allowing DeBolt to bring them into the helicopter.

Completing a further search of the area with negative results, CGNR 6007 returned to CGC Munro for offload of the four crewmembers and Heller. The crew then conducted another demanding HIFR evolution and transited 150 nm back to St. Paul Island. Having flown 8.5 non-stop hours, CGNR 6007 was responsible for saving 15 lives while battling harrowing conditions. Their actions were also crucial to the coordination of four other air and surface assets during the rescue of 42 people in one of the largest cold-water rescues in modern history.

Maryland State Police Aviation Command

Swift Water Rescue in a Tight Urban Environment

Jim MacKay - Civilian Pilot I

Nate Wheelock - Sgt.

Maryland State and U.S. Park Police helicopters played an integral role in rescuing motorists trapped after a massive water main break on River Road in Maryland on Dec. 23, 2008. Bill Wyckoff/Montgomery County Sentinel

On Dec. 23, 2008, at 8:15 am, “Trooper 2,” crewed by pilot Jim Mac- Kay and trooper/flight paramedic Sgt. Nate Wheelock, was dispatched from its hangar at Andrews AFB to the vicinity of River Road in Bethesda, Md. A catastrophic break in a 66-inch water main, causing 150,000 gallons of water a minute to flow down a steep road, trapped at least seven vehicles in the three- to four-foot deep, swiftly-flowing water. In anticipation of possible hoist rescues, prior to launch, the crew reconfigured the aircraft by assembling the rescue basket and placing it in the helicopter cabin. During the eight-minute flight to the scene, the crew of Trooper 2 established and maintained communications with the Washington National Airport ATC tower, Montgomery County Fire Command, U.S. Park Police helicopter “Eagle One” (also inbound to the scene) and multiple news helicopters filming in the vicinity of the incident. In addition, MacKay and Wheelock completed all appropriate hoist checklist steps.

Upon arrival overhead, Trooper 2 completed a comprehensive scene assessment to include determining the number and location of survivors as well as obstructions. At least seven cars were stranded by the rushing water and appeared to be unstable and at risk of being swept down the hill and into the swollen Cabin John Creek.

There were power lines paralleling each side of the road as well as crossing the road near the trapped vehicles. A canopy of 95 to 105-foot trees partially obstructed the roadway from above. The outside air temperature was 18F and the water temperature was nearly 40F. Some vehicles were unstable and had already slid partially down the hill and were lodged against other vehicles. The crew’s risk assessment also determined that, once committed to a hoist evolution, wires and other obstacles precluded a successful flyaway in the event of an engine failure or other critical aircraft malfunction.

From left to right, Maryland State Police Sgt. Nate Wheelock and Pilot Jim MacKay, U.S. Park Police Sgt. Jeffrey Hertel and Sgt. Kevin Chittick with Rotor & Wing Editor-at-Large Ernie Stephens.  Mark Cavich Photo

The Montgomery County swift water rescue team could not reach all of the survivors. Due to the length of time the survivors had been exposed to the frigid water and air temperatures, Fire Command asked the crew of Trooper 2 to hoist all survivors possible. While MacKay held a precision hover within feet of trees and wires, Wheelock expertly completed two hoist rescues of three survivors. During the first hoist from an altitude of 102 feet, a 22-year old woman self-extricated through her open car door window and climbed into the rescue basket. Wheelock skillfully controlled the cable while winching the basket up to the helicopter. Once alongside, he brought the survivor on board and secured her into a seat. Working as a team to clear the rotor blades from nearby trees, MacKay repositioned the aircraft forward approximately 20 feet and up to 108 feet above the road. Wheelock again lowered the basket and positioned it perfectly into the “V” created by the open front passenger door of a survivor’s vehicle. The intense cold, rotor system downwash, and rushing water made placement into the space of the open door extremely challenging. Two survivors, a mother and her nine-year old son, climbed into the rescue basket. Once again Wheelock deftly guided the cable and basket up past wires and trees. Unable to detach the basket from the hoist cable due to a thick coating of ice on the cable hook, the crew decided to move to a nearby landing zone to manage the problem on the ground. With the last two survivors still in the basket, MacKay smoothly transitioned the aircraft to an open field a quarter mile away and carefully touched down. With the added leverage of having both feet on the ground, Wheelock successfully unhooked the rescue basket, stored it in the cabin and completed an initial medical assessment of the three survivors. All three were soaking wet, covered with ice and shivering. MacKay lifted off and flew three miles to the nearest trauma center, Suburban Hospital, for definitive evaluation and treatment of the survivors for hypothermia. Everyone made a complete recovery. The crew of Trooper 2 tapped years of skill and judgment to save the lives of three people. Their actions reflect the very best of the MSP Aviation Command and the helicopter community and truly deserve to be recognized with the Rotor & Wing Helicopter Heroism Award.

U.S. Park Police

Swift Water Rescue of Fellow First-Responder in Icy Conditions

Kevin Chittick - Sgt.

Jeffrey Hertel - Sgt.

On Dec. 23, 2008 at approximately 8:16 a.m., the crew of Eagle 1—Sgt. Kevin Chittick as pilot and Sgt. Jeffrey Hertel as rescue technician—were dispatched by SYSCOM to the area of River Road and in Montgomery County, Md. for a water main break and several persons trapped within the moving water.

MSP’s Trooper 2 had been dispatched to the area as well and having arrived just minutes before Eagle 1, provided the first aerial report on the vehicle and subjects trapped and prioritized response for aerial rescues. Eagle 1’s first rescue response was to the northern most area of the swift moving water where the close proximity of trees and wires demanded constant communications and skillfulness between Hertel and Chittick to ensure that the aircraft, hoist cable and basket remained free of all obstructions. The result of this expertise saw the Billy Pugh rescue net dropped directly onto the hood of the car for easy access. However, the occupant of the vehicle was an elderly female, frozen by fear, refusing to leave her vehicle due to the raging water that surrounded it. The aerial rescue attempt was aborted and the woman was subsequently rescued by boat manually powered to her location.

During this rescue attempt, a member of the Montgomery County Swift Water Rescue Team remained with the vehicle as shore-based personnel pulled the women to safety. After the two remaining citizens were safely ashore, the boat was engulfed by the swift water and could not be used any further. The rescue technician began to suffer from exposure to the water, wind and outside air temperatures and attempts at a ground-based rescue had all proven unsuccessful. From a staging area near the scene, Eagle 1 was called back to the area to rescue the distressed firefighter. Once over the scene, Chittick hovered in challenging winds and Hertel maintained constant communications with Chittick to ensure that the aircraft remained free from all obstacles. Again, with pinpoint accuracy in stressful conditions, the crew lowered the net to the firefighter. The firefighter was able to pull himself into the net and was carefully raised to the aircraft. Chittick and Hertel are to be recognized and commended for their actions in this event.

United States Forest Service Posthumous Nomination

Ramage is survived by his wife of 38 years, Diane, and his 28-year-old daughter, Ginger, who accepted the Helicopter Heroism Award on his behalf.

James Ramage - Inspector Pilot

On Aug. 8, 2008, a Sikorsky S61 helicopter owned by Carson Helicopters carrying 11 fire fighters and two crew members crashed in Shasta Trinity Forest after several practice drops. The crash is still under investigation. Jim Ramage was the U.S. Forest Service check pilot and the crew had finished working for the day. The helicopter was returning when it crashed. Of the four survivors, one stated that he owes his life to Ramage. He reported that immediately after the helicopter lifted, Ramage recognized that there was a problem and yelled for everyone to take their crash positions. The survivor also stated that this act saved his life. Ramage was, however, killed in the accident. He had 40 years of service, beginning in Vietnam. Ramage was a U.S. Army helicopter pilot and served one tour of duty in Vietnam. He also served and flew with Air America in Southeast Asia from 1970 to1974. In 1974, he began his helicopter firefighting career with Evergreen Helicopter, Inc. and flew as a contract pilot for both the U. S. Forest Service and CAL Fire until 1978. He then worked as a contract pilot for Redding Air Service in Redding, Calif., flying across the western U.S. For 20 years, beginning in 1984, Ramage worked for CAL Fire. He was the first forestry pilot for CAL Fire and carried badge number one for forestry pilots. He was later promoted to air operations officer and served as CAL Fire chief helicopter pilot and later aviation safety officer until his retirement in 2003. Even after retirement, he couldn’t stay away from what he loved and returned to work at the Forest Service as helicopter inspector pilot.

Ramage was performing his duties as a helicopter inspector pilot at the time of the accident.

The submitter told Rotor & Wing that “Jim knew more about flying and helicopters than anyone I have ever known. He enjoyed helping anyone understand flying and the joy it brought him. Everyone I have ever met who knew him held Jim as the pinnacle of what they should be in skill and in professionalism.” More than 800 people attended his funeral.

From a longtime colleague:

I had the great pleasure to have worked with Jim Ramage for 10 years, while he worked for the California Department of Forestry (CDF). I was the second pilot on a firefighting helicopter at Vina Helitack. Jim was devoted to safety. He believed that taking care of his passengers and the aircraft were his primary job. He flew by the book and never compromised safety. He taught me about comfort levels. An uncomfortable feeling was time to reevaluate risk verses gain, it was never acceptable to put our passengers at undue risk. He believed large egos could end up in large crashes. Jim became CDF’s aviation safety officer and his proactive attitude to safety is one of the reasons CDF has such an outstanding safety record. After Jim retired from CDF, he worked for the U. S. Forest Service as an inspector/check pilot. His high standards and professionalism has made all of our helicopter operations safer.

Jim Costa

Forestry Pilot

Vina Helitack

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