Angels Over Montana

.The women of a Montana search and rescue team use GPS and other technology tools to help them perform their jobs better.

by / July 31, 1996
. Jagged peaks, tumbling icy mountain rivers and expansive, unblemished vistas attract the hikers, nature lovers and hunters. But for search and rescue teams based at Malmstrom Air Force Base in picturesque central Montana, those attractions are also barriers to finding and rescuing the wounded hunters, fallen climbers, downed aircraft and wandering children which accompany every tourist season.

"It's important to understand how rural this area is," said Captain Rhonda Kelly, chief pilot and chief of standardization and evaluation for Malmstrom. "Sometimes when we're on a mission we might land our helicopter to get assistance or direction and we may be talking to only one person. When you ask if they have a map of the area they hand you something that looks like a coloring book. For more than half the state there are no aeronautical maps."

That wildness poses possible dangers to hikers and tourist pilots alike. Private planes are lost every year in the mountains because the pilots aren't experienced with flying the wilderness. One such pilot was in an antique British Spitfire on his way to an air show when he inadvertently traveled into bad weather, became disoriented and flew into the ground. Although disorientation can happen to any pilot when flying without visual clues -- they literally lose track of which way is up and which is down -- instrumentation usually gets them through. In this case, however, the Spitfire didn't have modern instrumentation.

Malmstrom Air Force Base is located outside Great Falls, a town of about 80,000, with mountains and wilderness to the west. The primary purpose of its helicopter flight group is to provide support to the 341st missile wing located there. Because part of this responsibility is to handle any military-related medical emergencies, the base maintains search and rescue teams. Although these teams are prohibited by law from competing with any commercial or civilian search and rescue company, they can be dispatched to support civilian efforts when no civilian team is able to respond.

"We have rescue capability of some kind at almost all Air Force bases," said Colonel Gladys Young, M.D., 341st Aerospace Medicine Squadron commander. "There is a rescue control out of Langley Air Force base in Virginia that coordinates their efforts. If you are a sheriff in California and would like to get some help from the Air Force, you could call the number at Langley and they would figure out which units are available, what their training is and what other priorities they have."

To keep pace with modern developments, and improve their ability to successfully carry out searches and rescues, the Malmstrom team has been adding new technology to its toolset. For example, within the last year the team became hoist-certified, allowing them to do rescues that would have been difficult, if not impossible, in the past.

"I had the opportunity to do the first hoist rescue in Air Force space command," said Captain Kelly. "A gentleman who went hiking on his own was lost. The area he was in was very rough. In fact, one of the sheriffs on the ground pointed out that if the hiker had slipped into one of the fast-moving streams in the area we were searching, that we should probably be looking for parts. Nonetheless, we continued to search from the air and spotted him clinging to a downed tree in the middle of a stream. We lowered our doctor about 150 feet and got him."

The hoist has also proven invaluable for mountain rescues. In the past when someone was injured on a mountain side, the helicopter would put the medical team down at the nearest landable spot, which could be a mile or more away. A team then hiked into the injured person and then had to get them back out to the helicopter. For severe injuries, this delay could mean the difference between life and death. The hoist also means greater safety for the rescue team as they no longer need to trek through potentially dangerous terrain to make the save.

"In one incident in 1995, a young man was hiking, fell onto a ledge and was injured," said Colonel Young. "One of his companions stayed with him and the other ran out to get help. The sheriff realized that the civilian service's helicopter wouldn't handle the altitude, so called us in. Even for us the altitude was a problem so we landed back from the site and offloaded all equipment and most of the personnel. The helicopter returned to the site and lowered a med tech to the scene who was able to do some immediate immobilization while the pilot came back and picked me up. He brought me back to the hiker, hovered and we used the hoist to get the hiker up. He had a severe, open fracture in the lower leg and we had some trouble controlling the bleeding. Fortunately, by helicopter we were only 15 minutes from the hospital so we got him there and they got him stabilized. He was so unstable by the time we got him there that he probably wouldn't have made it without the hoist."

The entire team won the Rescue Air Crew of the Year award for 1995 from Headquarters, Air Force Space Command for this rescue.

High-tech communication and searching equipment is also adding to the team's capability. Captain Kelly was the first to fly a mission at night using the team's new night vision goggles.

"A plane had crashed and, working with night goggles, we were able to search for it at night," said Captain Kelly. "It was pretty amazing. The goggles attach to the helmet and can take 20/200 vision down to about 20/35 or 20/40 -- they magnify light up to 5,000 times. This is particularly important for helicopter pilots because hovering is a very visual maneuver and if you're hovering at 100 feet, any motion is going to be amplified at the bottom of the 100-foot hoist line. It's very hard to hover well when you can't see at night."

They did find the crashed plane that night. Unfortunately, there were no survivors.

Cellular phones have also added to the team's efficiency, although these are somewhat range-limited because there are no cells in the mountains and the team doesn't yet have a satellite connection. Still, the cell phone is used as long as possible to maintain contact with the base and is even used to transmit EKGs back to base for evaluation if there is no flight surgeon with the rescue team. Equipment also records the entire operation, which is used later for performance evaluation and team improvement.

Perhaps one of the most helpful of the new high-tech changes has been the addition of GPS units. The helicopters are already equipped with GPS systems which help them navigate through poorly mapped areas, and the ground teams are getting handheld GPS units which will help them identify their positions to the airborne teams. This is particularly important because rescue pilots often have limited amounts of fuel with which to complete their rescue missions.

"We only have three hours worth of gas, and sometimes we're down to our last few minutes," said Captain Kelly. "The GPS unit tells us how many minutes it is back to the hospital. It's a lot different when you're flying some part out to another base -- you don't need to push it. But on search and rescue missions, I'm going to rush to the hospital because the patient may not have that much time."

The search and rescue operations are not just about the use of high-tech gadgetry, though. The team's success is built on skilled flying and a coordinated team effort, which includes people from all over the base like the command post staff, base operations, transportation, the medical clinic, etc. Their team effort won a national award for a 1991 rescue -- well before they had the hoist.

"A 15-year-old boy got lost in the Bob Marshall wilderness -- he'd left his hunting party lightly dressed," said Colonel Young. "Extra helicopters were put on search to see if we could find him because a blizzard was coming in. He heard the helicopters and was able to attract the attention of ground searchers and his father got to him. By that time the kid had frostbite and was hypothermic. His father took him onto a ledge, but it was too small to make a landing.

"A med team climbed up to him and put him in a casualty bag to begin warming him up and another tech -- a small woman everyone now calls 'Cuddles' -- got in to help keep him warm and monitor him for any cardiac complications as he warmed up. The team rappelled down the cliff with the patient to an area about 200 yards below the ledge to a spot where the pilot thought he could put down the skids. There was only enough room to put down, so the techs had to kneel in the ravine around the site and the helicopter landed right on them. The boy was put in the helicopter and taken to the hospital."

Ironically, despite all the work they do, often times the search and rescue team doesn't even know the outcome. "Lots of times you pick them up and drop them off and you don't find out what's happened," said Captain Kelly. "You just drop them off and you hope for the best."

Not all rescues are dramatic, or win national awards, but for those heading out into Montana's rugged mountains, the Malmstrom search and rescue teams provide an extra edge.
David Aden
David Aden is a writer from Washington, D.C.