SOAPSTONE BASIN, Utah (3/12/10) – The Colorado Army National Guard has successfully recovered the remains of a Coast Guard MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter that crashed March 3 in a snowy, wooded ridge, 50 miles east of Salt Lake City.
The 15-member team conducted the daring three-hour high-altitude salvage operation using a CH-47 Chinook helicopter and a specialized 150-foot-long remote-controlled cable.
Ground crew members were dropped off at a snow-packed landing zone approximately 5 miles from the crash site and were quickly whisked in on snowmobiles by local search and rescue teams.
Soldiers on the rigging team fought blinding snow from the 75-mile per hour rotor wash above them to secure the 15,700-pound fuselage for aerial extraction from the crash site to a nearby parking lot in the Soapstone Basin area of Utah. The fuselage, along with its severed tail boom, were loaded onto a flatbed trailer and readied for transport.
“The actual planning for this mission took several days,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Micah Stocker, one of the CH-47 pilots assigned to the mission. However, the entire recovery operation (including travel time from Colorado) lasted less than 48 hours.”
Stocker attributes a great deal of the operation’s success to the incredible amount of prep work done by the U.S. Forest Service, local county law enforcement and others before the arrival of the recovery crew.
Trees surrounding the crash site had been cut and debris had been cleared. The fuselage, which initially landed on its side, had been “righted” to expose the proper sling points. Deep snow, which had become packed around the base of the disabled aircraft, had also been cleared to facilitate a quick extraction.
“The people on the ground out there had the (disabled) helicopter pretty well in shape,” added Stocker. “Everything was ready to go, so all we really had to do was just drop in and pick it up.”
The recovery was completed in less than 180 minutes and with only four lifts – one for the fuselage, one for the tail boom, and the remaining two for the larger pieces of aircraft debris.
“I think the most difficult part (of the mission) was the altitude and the fact we had to operate in such a small, confined space,” explained Staff Sgt. Joshua Smith, a crewmember aboard the CH-47. “That and trying to place a 150-foot cable on target on the ground – and avoid wrapping it around a tree as we lowered it.”
But as Smith continues, the operation is more than just one Soldier’s skill. It is a collective, symbiotic cognizance between all crewmembers, no matter what – or where – their jobs may be.
“The center of our training is that you have to have faith your fellow crewmembers are doing their job,” explained Smith. “Pilots have to believe in the team as a whole and that everyone is going to do the right thing – their position the cockpit gives them a narrow view of what’s happening below them. Crewmembers – both on the ground and in the air – become an extension of that cockpit … essentially becoming the extra eyes and ears necessary for the operation.”
The salvage team was comprised of soldiers from both Colorado’s Army Aviation Support Facility, located on Buckley Air Force Base, in Aurora, Colo., and its prestigious High-Altitude Army National Guard Training Site based in Gypsum, Colo. HAATS is the Colorado Guard’s unique aviation school that trains military rotor-wing pilots from all over the globe. Graduates of the rigorous high-altitude flying course leave with a deeper understanding of mountain flying and an operational philosophy known as “power management.”
Power management is critical to high altitude operations such as this because air density decreases with altitude, and aircraft engines perform differently than at sea level.
According to Chief Warrant Officer 4 Patrick Gates, a HAATS instructor and salvage operation pilot-in-command, the philosophy, when applied rigorously, gives pilots the knowledge and confidence needed to operate their aircraft safely at maximum gross weight – in virtually any environment.
A statement released by the Coast Guard said the crash occurred at approximately 11:50 a.m. on Wednesday, March 3. The MH-60T was one of two helicopters “returning from a deployment to Washington state to coincide with the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, Canada. The crew was traveling from Salt Lake City to Kansas City, Kan., en route to their home base of Elizabeth City, N.C.
“Two of the five crewmembers were airlifted by the crew of the second Coast Guard helicopter after it refueled and returned to the scene. The airlifted crewmembers were transported to the University of Utah Hospital where they were treated for internal injuries. “It was a pleasure working with the Colorado National Guard,” said Lt. Cmdr. Monty Nijjar, U.S. Coast Guard on scene commander who oversaw the salvage operation. “We could not have accomplished this mission without their assistance.”
“The accident is still under investigation at this time.”