HOVERING RESCUE AT 11,600 FEET

 

   Stead AFB, Nevada is not numbered among the many LBR’s scattered throughout the world but it does have eight Kaman H-43B’s assigned. The H-43B mission at the USAF Helicopter School at Stead is to upgrade Air Force pilots in a twenty-hour indoctrination course.  Along with training Air Force pilots, the instructors perform a 24 hour standby alert for possible emergency rescue missions.  The location of Stead AFB is on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains which rise to heights above 13,000 feet.  The H-43B is the only current Air Force helicopter that can perform at these altitudes with a good power reserve.

  On 3 September 1962, the Helicopter Operations scrambled the alert crew, Captain Marty Donohue, pilot; Captain George Kekuna, copilot; and SSgt Charles Baker, crew chief.  The mission was to airlift an injured mountain climber from the vicinity of Thousand Island Lakes, California, to the Bishop, California hospital.  The initial call was at 1500 hours and the takeoff to Bishop, 170 nm distance, was at 1555 hours. Three barrels of JP-4 fuel were loaded on the aircraft because there was no JP-4 fuel available enroute. At Stead we had encountered this problem before.  The aircraft gross weight at takeoff was 7800 pounds.  Despite a 15 knot quartering headwind the trip to Bishop was made in two hours.  The pilot and copilot alternated flying the aircraft every 15 minutes at an indicated airspeed of 80-85 knots.

  Western Air Rescue had instructed the H-43B crew to fly to Bishop where a CAP representative would provide further information.  Upon landing, the helicopter crew was informed that the climber was to be carried from the 13,100 foot slope of Mt. Ritter to a lower level by a ground rescue party.  The pickup was to be made at the 9,500 foot level, 50 NM from Bishop.  Due to the altitude and approaching darkness the H-43B “Huskie” was refueled to only 900 pounds and all unnecessary equipment was left at Bishop. The aircraft was landed at the 9,500 foot site at 1850 hours.  The pilot was advised by the base camp rescue personnel that they were having difficulty in moving the injured man, Robert Elliot, down the mountain.  They also reported that he was at the 12,000 foot level and bleeding excessively from a severed finger and badly crushed foot.  He had been on the mountain 28 hours since his fall and could not conceivably survive another night there.  For this reason and the rapidly approaching darkness, Captain Donohue decided to search the mountain for a possible place as near the injured man as possible.  The crew chief and remaining loose equipment aboard the aircraft were left at the 9,500 foot site.  The injured climber’s condition was reported to be extremely weak so Donohue decided against a hoist pickup.  The rescue party and injured man were located at 1920 hours on a 70 degree slope where no landing site was available.  After two reconnaissance approaches, a small ledge 100 yards from the ground party was noticed and the decision was made to hover over this ledge to attempt a loading through the side door.

  The approach was made at 102% N2.  Due to the steepness of the slope and small area of the ledge, there was little or no effective ground cushion and it took 29 PSI torque to hover out of ground effect.  To aid in visibility during the final approach, Captain Kekuna turned on the landing and flood lights and a hover was established at 1930 hours (sunset at 1918 hours).  The lights were an excellent aid to the rescuers and were even more effective in helping Captain Kekuna advise Captain Donohue on the proximity of the rotor blades to the mountain side. The blades were swirling extremely close to the rocks as Captain Donohue skillfully maneuvered his aircraft ever closer to the rescued party huddled on the ledge.  He was successful in getting close enough that the injured climber could be placed inside the helicopter for evacuation. The helicopter pulled away from the darkening mountain side and flew the injured man to a waiting ambulance at a landing site near the Bishop hospital.

 

This pickup at 11,600 feet was possibly the highest Air Force helicopter rescue in the continental United States and made in near darkness.