NEWS | Dec. 1, 2015

Celebrating decision making: Part 3 in a 3-part search-and-rescue series

By Lt. Col. Tony Somogyi Colorado National Guard

GYPSUM, Colo. – Celebrating decision making sounds about as exciting celebrating continuation from fifth grade to middle school, but that's what should be highlighted about a day with multiple search-and-rescue missions in the high country of Colorado.

People like to celebrate the hoist operations that we conduct at 14,000 feet, or the one-wheel landing that made the news, because that's sexy. Even as pilots, good decisions are rarely applauded, but you can bet your wings that a poor decision will be revisited more than you would like to.

As the commander of the High-altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site (HAATS), I have multiple levels of risk to evaluate. In training, I must trust that my instructors can scan a student quickly, challenge that student by pushing his or her limits, and yet allow learning to take place without damaging the aircraft. This is high frequency because the training is conducted weekly, and low probability because of the experience of my instructors.

What makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck is search-and-rescue (SAR) decision making.

SARs for HAATS tend to be medium-frequency, high-risk missions. Medium frequency meaning that we flew 29 missions last fiscal year, so there's some familiarity, but still high risk for a multitude of reasons.

In addition to normal risk associated with flying in the mountains, SAR missions can become complicated quickly. These complications arise from variables such as relying on our civilian SAR teams as our ground counterpart, the elevations at which people get lost or injured, the severity of the situation before we're notified, the expectation of what we're supposed to be able to accomplish, and the ever-present sense of urgency.

On July 11, we received a call for two missing hikers around Mount Blanca. Flight for Life Colorado, with whom we work quite frequently, was also called to search because it was presumed that since the pair had been missing for two days, they were probably in need of medical attention. Ground teams began to move into the area, and FFL was able to locate the two individuals.

Due to the terrain they were in, it was decided that a hoist operation might be needed, and in any event, FFL wasn't going to be able to land near them. The HAATS crew received this information after launching and landing at incident command for a face to face. This was the first good decision to set the tone for the day: land and conduct a face to face with the IC. A face to face typically alleviates any misperceptions we got from translating the situation through numerous operations centers; it also updates information that changed since our dispatching. This decision was especially important in this case since we don't work with this county often, and communication available with the field teams was already in question. This also prevented us from entering the search area and being surprised by FFL. Even though we have a memorandum of understanding with them that places us on a common radio frequency, it's easy to forget to blind call or even tune it up at times if we don't suspect they're there.

After receiving an accurate coordinates, the HAATS crew launched from the IC to assess the mission from the air.

It was determined that it would take hours for the ground team to get to the hikers.

About this time, we were receiving word from Mountain Rescue Aspen about a possible follow-on mission on Mount Snowmass for a fallen climber. This was relayed to the crew roughly the time they arrived over the surviving hikers. The crew decided that it was just as easy to pick up the two seemingly OK survivors and save fuel for the possible follow-on mission.

We have SAR standard operating procedures that emphasize our options in order of safety: First, if possible, land on all three wheels; two-wheel landing is second; one-wheel landing third; and hoist as a last resort. Since there were no ground teams on site and wouldn't be for a few hours due to the terrain, and a landing wasn't possible, a hoist was determined to be the best option.

At HAATS, we don't have medics who are well trained in riding the hoist down to assess a victim. As such, the crew chief went down on the rescue seat, making this the second decision to celebrate – even though this was out of the normal. This gave the young crew chief the opportunity to assess the survivors and determine if the seat would work for them. More important, he made sure they were securely attached to the rescue seat, vice relying on them being able to read – let alone comprehend – the instruction card connected to the seat, without any experience with the equipment and after no sustenance for two days.

While conducting the hoist work on Mount Blanca, back at HAATS we received word from the Colorado National Guard's Joint Operations Center of a third mission that was approved and became the next priority.

A female hiker, who happened to be 10 weeks pregnant, fell on Crestone Peak and had a possible broken femur, broken ribs, difficulty breathing and was becoming hypothermic as reported by her hiking partner.

Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle, like so many mountains in the Aspen area, are nasty places to work, and one of the few places that make me cringe when we have to send aircrews there. Following the hoist mission on Mount Blanca, the crew was going to Alamosa for fuel, so we decided to talk to them by phone when they landed to give them the follow-on mission – hopefully with a little more clarity.

Although not celebrated at the time, this decision slowed the operational tempo and allowed us at HAATS to coordinate ground teams and talk with a good connection. Slowing the OPTEMPO is sometimes difficult, especially with a victim like this, but it's necessary to prevent pushing a bad situation. One thing we like to reiterate from time to time for both our aircrews and ground team members is, "don't make their emergency, your emergency!"

It was pretty evident that this mission was going to require a hoist. Patient packaging is not our forte; we rely on the civilian SAR teams we work with for that. As luck would have it, members of the Western Mountain Rescue Team, with whom we trained for hoist operations during the spring, were on their way there from Gunnison. It was decided to have them go to another airfield where we would link up with them and a team from Saguache County, insert the teams, package the victim, then hoist and go.

It was also determined that this mission had the possibility to run into night, requiring night-vision goggles. At this point, it was determined crew rest was not an issue, so we adjusted the risk accordingly and didn't have much in the way of mitigation to apply – yet. Now it was time for the real decision party to begin.

While en route to Crestone Peak, the aircrew was notified that FFL was taking the Snowmass mission.

After picking up the Saguache and Custer County SAR teams and locating the survivor and her climbing partner on Crestone Peak, the combined SAR team was inserted.

The survivors were on the leeward side of the mountain, in a steep drainage on an island of sorts made of one large rock and running water on both sides from the melting snowpack above. There was no place to land near the injured party, so the team was inserted as close as possible to them and would have to traverse the couloir to make contact with them. (Ironically, one week later we'd be back at the same spot for a climber who wasn't so lucky. He missed the island in the fall and subsequently died.)

The aircrew left the mountain to pick up the Western team, donned their NVGs, and inserted the Western team to package and hoist the survivor.

Calculating risks

The Blackhawk is a powerful machine, but at 14,000 feet, even it has limits.

While operating on the leeward side of the mountain, the downdraft and turbulence were so strong that maintaining a stabilized hover was virtually impossible. Working backward now through our SAR SOP, from hoist to landing, had to occur. I say "backward" because now the ground team had to move the survivor with ropes in unforgiving terrain. Their safety had to be balanced along with the capabilities of the aircraft and crew.

This was the best decision of the night and the reason to tell the story – moving away from the hoist and opting to land, sacrificing speed and the hero image that comes with doing a live hoist. It was also one of the hardest for both the ground teams and the survivor to hear. The turbulence was bad – to the point that a one-wheel wasn't going to be stable enough to load the survivor over the rugged terrain. Two wheels would be marginally better, but there wasn't a place for it to be executed.

Unfortunately, the team would have to move the survivor 1,500 feet vertically down the mountain, possibly at night with no illumination, to a pickup zone (PZ) where the aircraft could get all three wheels on the ground to load. The decision became complicated because there was a serious concern as whether the survivor would make it through the night given limited medical support by the SAR teams.

This was a tough decision to make given the circumstances, but the right call from a safety standpoint.

The aircrew went back to Alamosa for fuel and planned on returning at 1 a.m. for pick up and a status check since they were going to be out of communications with the SAR teams.

Meanwhile, the rest of us in the Command Center at HAATS were beginning to wonder what the issue was. I know from our experiences with fallen climbers about how much time it takes to complete the complicated portion of the mission, and I'm respectful of the workload going on in the aircraft enough to stay out of the cockpit, but the lack of contact was becoming disturbing. We finally received a call from the aircraft when they were back in Alamosa about what the proposed plan was.

Now I have some decisions to make as a risk manager.

I understand that they don't want to leave the victim or the team in the field, but I have to be the one weighing the risk versus the reward. The risk being that this crew had completed one mission and was potentially going to do another mission, only to end up on this one. They took NVGs with them, but those were for recovery purposes.

Flying unaided in the mountains of Colorado can be a death sentence. We hadn't cycled the crew for NVGs, so they'd been at work since noon and were going on nine hours of duty day already, and the pickup wasn't until 1 a.m. Pickup at 1 a.m. exposed them to the most dangerous portion of the mission and in the 11th hour of their duty day; they still had a two-hour flight home to HAATS on top of it through the Colorado high country. I know they haven't eaten and probably hadn't hydrated too much. I normally wouldn't worry so much about a person's diet, but I also knew that they only had two small bottles of oxygen each and probably exhausted one so far, so I was concerned about hypoxia adding to the issue.

We discussed all the variables and why the crew made the decision not to do the hoist. I had to make a decision whether they should go back and pick up the victim or trust that she was in good hands to this point and was going to be able to be roped down and carried out.

At a minimum, the crew needed to make contact and let the ground team know what was going on, which could happen on the way home. There was an air ambulance waiting in a soccer field in town, but that location was as remote as its contract would allow under NVGs. 

So carrying out the victim would be a long and arduous process. Hypothermia, broken ribs, broken femur, in the backcountry, and who was 10 weeks pregnant also factored into the situation.

We are not heartless.

It was decided that the crew would return at 1 a.m. If the SAR team made it to the pickup zone with the patient, and a safe extraction and delivery to the awaiting air ambulance could be conducted, the mission would continue with some mitigation.

Mitigating risks

First of all – and not because I was worried about the crew becoming Aretha Franklin like in the candy commercial from a lack of food – they needed to eat. They were able to coordinate late-night food with the airport. Second, they needed to make sure they had enough oxygen for the pickup and the trip home. As luck would have it, the first mission was only around 12,000 feet and was executed fairly quickly, so they all had oxygen remaining. Finally, the last and most critical item to manage at this point, was crew rest. They assured me they felt okay now, which didn't matter to me because they were coming off adrenalin and the critical time to be awake was over four hours from now. I urged them to try to nap, but having experienced it many times myself, it's hard to turn the brain off during a SAR knowing you have to go back out, so sleep is difficult at best.

I could only offer some mitigation, short of ordering them to come home, and I wasn't sure my conscious would have allowed me to do that.

First of all, it was easy for me to say that being back at Command Center at HAATS and not out there in the field. It was reiterated to think of the crew before the victim or the SAR teams. If they had an accident, now they were making that victim's emergency their emergency. This was not lost on the crew.

Second, and most important, they were going to have to cross-monitor each other's performance. I wasn't there to watch the crew, and truthfully only each crewmember knew how tired he was; externally it could be faked for the most part. The crew was familiar enough with each other that hopefully they could identify mistakes being made in performance/load calculations, or just normal crew procedures, and use it as an indicator to determine if the risk was increasing.

Third, if the ground team wasn't successful in moving the victim to the PZ, the crew had to determine what additional time and coordination must take place, and if not executed quickly, they may have to leave them all in the field and return home. There was no going back to Alamosa for fuel and they still needed about two hours of fuel to get home.

Finally – and I hate doing it especially to the all-volunteer SAR teams who incidentally are the true heroes in this and all our SAR missions – the ground teams would have to walk out. We assumed all the risk to get the victim out; the very capable ground teams could handle the hike and coordinate for transportation.

Risk approval

As the commander of the HAATS, I only get to manage the risk at my level to the best of my abilities. In the state of Colorado, ultimately the adjutant general (TAG) who is the two-star leader of both the Army and Air National Guard, is the one who has to approve the highest level of risk. My conduit to him is through the state Army aviation officer, who happens to be my predecessor in this job and who is well versed about the ins and outs of these missions. I rely on his tutelage since I still haven't seen it all, and his ability to articulate to TAG the risk he is about to assume. This is extremely important because sometimes senior leaders will assume risk, not fully knowing what they're assuming, and we owe them a detailed explanation so they can make an informed decision.

With the mitigations in place, he trusted the team and allowed the mission to continue.

I don't know that the decision to go back and pick up the victim is a celebration type decision; it was just a decision. However, it was calculated and mitigated. The crew was airborne again at 12:45 a.m. Once they were in radio range, the SAR teams communicated that they had the victim in the designated PZ where all three wheels could make contact with the ground. Their efforts saved this individual and the baby. The landing in the soccer field and subsequent transfer to the air ambulance went quickly, and the crew was on their way home.

Incidentally, the cross-monitor piece I spoke of earlier paid off. On the return trip home, one of the crew members became Aretha Franklin like. Probably the most benign portion of the mission aside from being under NVGs, and this crew member became nitpicky about every task that was occurring at the time. Simultaneously, the remaining crew members told him to get back on oxygen, and Aretha disappeared.

This story is Part 3 in a 3-part series.