*Survival on Mt. Whitney*
By: Skip
28 April 2003

It was Nov. 5 1982 and I had gotten a call from the duty crew chief the night before. We were a small S.A.R. detachment and often would fill in for each other so I had no problem taking the duty for a sick friend. Of course this meant that I would have to fly the Saturday morning FAM (familiarization) flight.

As normal I was early so that I could do my pre flight and the weight and balance before the pilots showed up. The helo, a UH-1N, was in good shape. The air crewmen that fly are also the maintenance crew that way we know what we are flying. Like I said the helo was good but the weight and balance was off. We were scheduled to do a FAM flight up the Sierra Nevada and end with a tour of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. It is 14,492 feet tall and 4,492 feet over our legal flight range because we don't have oxygen on board for each crewman. However we often fly above 10,000 feet and make a lot of rescues at high elevations. We skim the rules by using a walk around bottle of oxygen passed between ourselves and up until this day all went well. I told the pilot about the over weight problem and he re figured the weight and said lets go.

Because we were the station duty S.A.R. helo all the needed rescue equipment and a full crew of five were on board. Furthermore I had introduced a program so each air crewman carried a pack with all needed gear to spend several nights in the wild in addition to issued flight gear. We were ready but nothing ever happens?

The flight was uneventful the new co-pilot could handle the stick. He had been in the fleet and flew many hours. I like to fly outside the bird, by that I mean that I like to sit on the deck with my feet hanging out and sometimes I will stand on the skids depending on the mission. Like I said it was November and as the altitude increased so did the temperature. Part way up Mt. Whitney I started to get cold so I slid back inside the door and tightened up my gunners belt so I could just lean my head out the door like a dog does in a car. Being the crew chief I was not in a seat like the other crewman, I was on a gunners belt that way I can move around the cabin.

Once we flew to the top of the mountain the pilot decided to see if we could hover close to ground and maybe land. Before we could do that we had to do an out of ground effect hover. We went five hundred feet above the mountain top and tried to hover. Yes I said tried!

As fast as you can think it we lost power and tail rotor authority. The helo started to spin and drop. I had enough time to think "Oh God" and we hit the first time. As the helo bounced up I looked out the side closest to the drop off and only saw air. I yelled for all to get out. We are taught to stay in the helo in a crash until all motion stops, that way you won't get hit by a rotor blade. BUT if you are about to go over the side of a mountain maybe you should break that rule. Then we hit again and it was clear that we were on solid ground but still bouncing. So I yelled again for all to stay put. I don't know if anyone heard me or not but we all stayed in the bird.

When all motion stopped we took inventory. All were alive. Four with bumps and bruises and one with sever back pain. The two pilots, the second crewman and the corpsman were all strapped into seats and the seats helped absorb the impact. With me on the end of a gunners belt I was flung around like a rag doll. My back was bruised from the neck to below my waist. The corpsman made a stretcher from the gunners door and made me as comfortable as possible.

It was 0920 on the fifth day of November, we were on the tallest peak in the country, there was snow on the ground and we were the only search and rescue aircraft within miles. This is a survival situation.

We were all well trained and had plenty of equipment. After inventorying what we had a call was put out on guard. Guard is a emergency frequency that is monitored by all Navy air craft. Because I was flat on my back I was giving the radio duty and made contact with an A-7 attack plane that was flying by. He became the control air craft and notified the base of our situation. It wasn't long and we were all off that mountain and receiving medical care. When one of the Navy's own is down all stops are pulled out.

Because of the constant training and the equipment we had with us we survived what could have been a life taking event. The survival equipment specialist that was part of the accident investigation said we were the most prepared crew that she ever seen.

After a situation like this it is time to evaluate what you did that worked and what didnít work. The Navy does this and I recommend that we (Rubies) do also.

Right off the bat it was obvious that our training paid off. Emergency steps came natural to us. Our survival equipment worked and was in good condition. And our instincts alerted us to a situation that was not in the book.

It takes more that good equipment to survive though. With out the training on the equipment we might not have been able to use it. With out knowing how to cook what good is it to store food? All the latest gear in the world is no good if you havenít tried it out and trained on it.

At that base our Captain would go out to the flight line and take a pilot/crewman out of an aircraft that just landed and make him spend two days and a night in the wild. All he could bring was what he had with him in the aircraft. That is realistic training.

The key to survival is training.

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