I'm not exactly sure what motivates a helicopter crew to do what five members of the Canadian rescue forces at Base Comox on the western coast of the country did with an AgustaWestland AW101 "Comorant" nearly one year ago, but I'm sure one hiker is glad they did.
I'm also not sure how cost effective it is to use a large, three-engine helicopter to pick up one little hiker, but that's grist for the story mill some other time.
Regardless, a panel of judges from the Canadian forces and Canadian journalist cadre recently selected a 442 Squadron crew as the winner in AgustaWestland's annual Comorant Trophy for helicopter rescue based on a 23 December 2010 rescue. Canada has a fleet of 14 Cormorants.
Here's the setup: It's night time on 23 December and a 23yr-old hiker is stranded nearly one mile up in a narrow steep bowl in dense clouds on Hat Mountain in the Cypress Provincial Park in British Columbia. A winter storm is approaching. Rescue 907, an AW101 operated by the 442 Squadron, gets the call to perform a rescue, an has one chance to make the save ahead of the storm, which officials said would have left the man "stranded for days without the necessary provisions to survive".
Here's how AgustaWestland describes the rescue: "As the crew approached in their AW101 "Cormorant" helicopter, they were battered by the turbulence of 46mph wind gusts blowing straight down the mountain.
This forced the pilots to fight rapid power swings, causing significant rotor speed changes which made accurate control of the helicopter very difficult.
Using night vision gear, the search team were only able to make out a faint light, which they hoped was their rescue target."
"We reached the estimated location of the hiker by slowly flying up the side of the mountain," said the aircraft commander, Capt. Jean Leroux. "We had to attempt multiple passes until the visibility was good enough for us to fly over the man's location." Each of these approaches pushed the helicopter with its three powerful engines to its limit. Normally, the 'maximum' speed or power required for missions in an AW101 Cormorant reached about 80%, but during this rescue, the power fluctuated up to 117%, giving constant warning alarms."
"Facing the high risk of an avalanche, the crew decided on a fast extraction with the search and rescue (SAR) technician remaining attached to the hoist. The flight engineer then directed the aircraft [to a position] about 23ft above the hiker with a vertical rock face just 5-10ft in front of the rotor blades. The flight engineer lowered the SAR tech who quickly hooked up the rescue subject and both men were hoisted on board. Throughout this procedure, the snow was being whipped around the helicopter enveloping it in a "snowball" drastically reducing the pilots' visibility."
"As they went to fly away, a thick layer of cloud moved in, making it impossible to backtrack the way they came in. With almost no visibility, the flight crew managed to extract the helicopter from the cliff confines relying only on instrumentation to show them the way out. The crew flew to Lyons Bay soccer field, where the man was transferred to a land ambulance to be taken to hospital for treatment for mild hypothermia."
Congrats to the crew for the gutsy dispatch, and better luck hiking to the hiker who was lucky enough to have an AW101 and able crew at the ready.