Three hikers who spent the night stranded on Mt. Whitney with limited cold weather supplies was brought to safety by a California Army National Guard crew on July 29, 2021, during a mission to support the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office via the California Governor’s Emergency Services Office.
U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Aaron Mello and four crew members took off in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter from the Cal Guard Army Aviation Support Facility in Stockton and headed for the highest peak in the contiguous United States.
“The clouds were pushed against the mountain, so we couldn’t just go up the valley towards them,” Mello said. “We had to go around, jump over it and come back into the valley from the back.”
They arose above 13,500 feet.
The high altitude required additional oxygen for the crew and placed additional challenges on the flight conditions.
“The air is getting pretty thin,” Mello said.
The plane circled several times before finding the hikers near the final camp of the mountain’s 14,505-foot summit.
“The people we were looking for were ambulatory, not very good, but other hikers were helping them,” he said.
He and the crew searched for a place to land the helicopter, but a flat 60-foot-long spot was nowhere in sight.
“We hovered a bit because we just couldn’t find a place to put the plane,” Mello said. “It was really rocky, really steep and uneven.”
The crew had two options: drop off a search and rescue team that would help hikers get to a better landing zone somewhere down the mountain, which would add additional physical demands to rescuers and delay their evacuation. at least an hour or more, or do a riskier two-wheeled landing to quickly get stranded hikers out of the mountain.
“We said, ‘Look, if they’re moving on their own, there are people out there to help them, let’s put it down here and drop the ramp,” Mello said. ” We are here. We can do it. Let’s take them out now and get them back down the mountain ASAP.
To perform what is known as a summit landing, the crew searched for a rock platform large enough to land the helicopter’s rear wheels and far enough from the side of the mountain to avoid hitting all six blades. of the rotor.
It’s a move they practice often, Mello said, just in case they have to do it during a live scenario.
“We played this precise positioning game for a few minutes to even find a place where we could put both wheels safely on the ground without a rock punching a hole in the plane or blowing a tire.” , Mello said.
While Mello and his fellow pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Craig Hannon, worked on the flight controls, the flight engineer and two crew chiefs monitored the blade clearance and instructed the pilots where to move the rear of the aircraft. helicopter to perform the landing.
“Without our flight engineer and crew chiefs, we couldn’t do it,” said Mello.
“When I look out the window, I only see a large valley under my feet. The ground is a few hundred meters below me, ”he said. “I can’t see what I’m landing on in the back, so I’m just following their signals and holding the plane as still and steady as possible.”
Staff Sgt. George Esquivel, the crew’s flight engineer, dropped the edge of the helicopter’s rear ramp to request positioning as the wheels lowered onto a slightly tilted rock. Once on the ground, however, the aircraft began to taxi and the crew had to cancel the attempted landing.
Sgt. Kyle Reeves, one of the two team leaders, spotted a flatter rock on his side of the plane, while Spc. Julian Lopez kept an eye on the rotor blade clearance.
“From the pilot’s point of view, he’s backing up blind,” Reeves said. “There’s no backup camera or anything. We are the backup camera.
Reeves latched onto the cabin door and requested positioning in 5 foot increments then 1 foot increments as the crosswinds continued to blow against the Chinook.
“The plane still wanted to come down the hill, so I had to put one of the tires in a little dimple that was in the rock,” Reeves said.
With Reeves’ guidance, Mello nestled a tire in a stone indentation roughly the size of a basketball. The dimple offered enough grip to keep both tires on the cliff, Reeves said.
“These are my eyes behind the back,” Mello said. “You have to trust them completely. “
With the rear half of the helicopter landed with the ramp down and the front half still in flight, Mello and Hannon fought to keep the helicopter stable while the movement of the crew in the rear of the aircraft took off. changed its center of gravity and gusts of wind of 30 knots shook the helicopter.
“When you’re at the top you work really hard not to let the wind push you away when there are gusts,” Mello said. “Every limb you have is used in a rewarding way to make small adjustments to keep you where you need to be. It’s like riding a unicycle and trying to juggle.
With the helicopter’s open ramp of nearly 25,000 pounds as a pivot point, any movement from behind could injure or crush other crew members, the onboard search and rescue team, or hikers. rescued, he said.
“Once you think you’re stable and say, ‘OK, I’m stable, lower the ramp and start the rescue effort,’ you’re undeniably engaged until it’s over,” said Mello.
With both rear wheels down, Esquivel knew they were fighting the clock to get the hikers on the plane.
“The second we were able to land we had very little time,” said Esquivel. “Our pilot at the controls was fighting all the terrain, the wind and the washout of the rotor. We wanted to make sure he was comfortable all the time during this situation, so we just speeded up the process as much as we could. “
The hikers “looked very tired and withered,” Esquivel said, but were able to move around without limping and did not appear to be limited in their walk.
“We kind of rushed them to the plane,” he said, knowing how precarious the situation was. “Everyone’s safety has been taken into account. “
With the hikers, search and rescue team, and crew all safely aboard, Mello and Hannon took off from the mountain and headed for Bishop Airport in the Owens Valley, where they dropped off the team and hikers before heading back to Stockton.
Mello attributes the success of the mission to their ongoing training and communication with the crew, but says the best part of the rescue was the rescue itself.
“It’s great to rescue people who are alive,” he said.
“When we get to doing a major rescue like this for the people who need it, it’s a good day. “