Montana Airmen rescue ailing man from snow-bound home

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Elora J. McCutcheon
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs

Thick white snow flurried in a heavy wave through the northern sky, nearly concealing the green belly and graphite blades of a UH-1N Huey helicopter slicing through the snowstorm.

On board were five Airmen who ran through their plan of action: do what it takes to safely make it to Cascade, Mont., and rescue a local 62-year-old man in debilitating pain from his snow-bound home.

Capt. David Horney’s mind was a calculated blizzard of its own; the 40th Helicopter Squadron aircraft commander was continuously evaluating weather conditions, instrument readings, visual navigation and aircrew safety.

Stakes were high with such low visibility.

Just three hours earlier, the aircraft commander was notified of the mission before the sun even rose on November 13, around 4 a.m. He immediately jumped into gear and began mission planning as he completed his morning routine. By 5 a.m., his five-person team was assembled and reporting for action.

“I was ready to do what we’ve trained for,” Horney exclaimed of the mission notification. “We do a lot of mountain training, so I was amped to put that into action and hopefully help someone out with it.”

The air crew joining Horney included Capt. Jacques Soto, 40th HS copilot, Capt. Robert Lemme, 341st Operational Medical Readiness Squadron flight surgeon, and Senior Airmen Stephen Rotton and Timothy Woodruff, 40th HS flight engineers.

Before being approved to depart from base, though, the 40th HS required authorization from the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center to dispatch an active duty unit for civil support.

Lt. Col. Kenneth Green, 40th HS commander, swiftly coordinated efforts to ensure the Cascade County man was not kept needlessly waiting in an agonizing state.

The 40th HS was called to act by the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, who initially contacted the Malmstrom Fire Department for assistance after being unable to travel to the ailing man due to more than one foot of snow accumulation surrounding the remote residence.

The quick synchronization between agencies was followed by a green light from AFRCC, and within two hours of authorization, the crew set off into a frozen white flurry with sharp focus on the goal at hand.

“We’ve all experienced degraded weather, but it’s never comfortable,” Horney explained of the wintry conditions. “It adds an element of stress and difficulty; you become more aware and take additional steps to maintain safety.”

All five crew members worked to assess safety conditions and positively confirm each other was comfortable continuing the mission; required visibility for flight is one-half mile, and captains Horney and Soto were working with barely one.

“It was never so bad that we had to stop, but I’m constantly evaluating if it’s safe to continue,” Horney stated.

The team ran like a well-oiled machine during the one-hour flight into the Big Belt Mountains and determined the safest way to land near the patient’s home was to use an out-of-ground effect hover—a maneuver that prevents a white-out by starting in a high hover and ending in a slow descent toward the fresh snow below.

Lemme and Woodruff, medic and flight engineer, trekked nearly half a mile through an open field of snow and into a more wooded cluster of homes with the assistance of a neighbor, who led them to the correct address. Once on-scene, Lemme said, relief from finding the patient in stable condition replaced tension from the journey to the isolated area.

“[The patient] was in severe pain but his vitals were good, so I knew we had time to make him comfortable for the trip back,” Lemme recalled. “He was very grateful when we showed up, and he was sure to get my name.”

Horney and Soto repositioned the helicopter nearer to the cabin in that time: an area with snow-flocked evergreen trees encroaching the rotor blades just 15 feet within reach.

Soon enough, the 62-year-old man was treated and carried back to the helicopter to be transported directly to the Great Falls International Airport twenty minutes back toward base.

An ambulance was arranged to meet the helicopter upon arrival and immediately drove the patient to local hospital, Benefis Health System.

“There’s a sense of relief when you land after a challenging mission,” Horney described of the five-hour task. “It feels good to know you helped someone out of a difficult situation.”

This was the first search and rescue mission of the year for the 40th HS, whose personnel conduct training lines upwards of 30 times a week—with each individual flying two to three times weekly for emergency procedures, tactical response and security presence.

The seamless coordination between Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, Malmstrom Air Force Base, Great Falls International Airport and Benefis Health System bonds the local community and military community.

"The long-standing relationship between the Airmen at Malmstrom Air Force Base and the local community is of the utmost importance to us,” said Col. Barry E. Little, 341st Missile Wing commander. “Wing One stands ready 24/7, 365 days a year to support when called upon and are always happy to help."