It was all about precision.
A Pendleton-based Oregon National Guard Chinook helicopter crew performed Friday’s dramatic rescue of a man stuck near the summit of Mt. Hood. The CH-47F Chinook backed into the mountain and balanced on rear wheels, using tandem rotors to keep the craft steady. Rescuers already on the scene escorted the man to the helicopter.
The 27-year-old Texan reportedly had climbed the mountain with the intention of killing himself and later changed his mind.
It took the helicopter five or six minutes to fly up the mountain from where it had been staging at Welches. Just above 11,000 feet, the crew spotted the man and a group of rescue climbers who had climbed to him.
The crew, from the 168th Aviation Regiment in Pendleton, initially planned to use a hoist to retrieve the stranded climber, but because of deteriorating ground conditions and the strong downdraft created by the rotors, they decided to land instead. They soon realized there was no landing zone big enough for the massive helicopter to set down four wheels and opted instead for a two-wheel pinnacle landing.
Slowly, the craft backed into the mountain with the front of the craft surrounded by blue sky. Pilot and Chief Warrant Officer 2 John Hoffman sat in the left seat with senior pilot CW4 Don Ford in the right seat. Hoffman recalled the view from the cockpit.
“We were looking down the mountain, basically at nothingness,” Hoffman said. “Everything dropped off.”
Behind them, three crew members — Sgt. Jeremy Maddox, Sgt. James McKnight and St. Sgt. Steven Kirkpatrick — called out instructions.
“Come down two (feet). Slide left. Slide right. Hold position.”
“The pilots had to take our word for it. They had no sight picture up front,” Maddox said. “We had to trust the pilots would make the movements we suggested.”
He said the team felt confident in their training and their helicopter. They had done similar pinnacle landings in the high-altitude terrain of Afghanistan.
“There was such laser focus going on,” Maddox said of the nerve-racking maneuver. “It was awesome to see the crew coordination. We are able to do very small adjustments in whatever direction we needed. We inched it down.”
The pilots kept the Chinook pressed against the mountain during the rescue.
“You’re cognizant of the fact that people are getting on and off the ramp,” Hoffman said. “If someone is part off and part on, if you were to come away from the landing area, it would put them at extremely high risk. If they slipped off, they could fall down the mountain.”
Because the helicopter was at an angle to the mountain, the rotors came four to six feet from the ground. Those nearing the Chinook had to crawl on all fours.
The six ground rescuers who had climbed to the victim also caught a ride down the mountain in the helicopter. The hot day had softened the snow. Rocks and chunks of ice tumbled. Conditions were treacherous even for seasoned climbers.
“I heard one guy say, ‘The mountain is falling apart,’” Hoffman recalled.
As the climbers boarded, the added weight shifted the center of gravity, but the pilots handled the situation with small adjustments.
As the Chinook headed down the mountain at 2:55 p.m., the men shared a common feeling.
“Relief,” Maddox said.
A short time later, Maddox’s wife posted a video of the rescue shot by a television station. The men gathered around and watched, critiquing their performance.
Now that some time has passed, Hoffman reflected on the rescue.
“Until you get pushed into a mission of that nature, you don’t really understand the significance of the training you’ve been doing for so many years,” he said. “When it comes off safely and you rescue somebody, that’s a pretty good feeling.”
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0810.