WHEELER ARMY AIRFIELD, Hawaii -- "If you are in trouble anywhere in the world, an airplane can fly over and drop flowers, but a helicopter can land and save your life," said Igor Sikorsky, founder of the company that builds the U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter.
Saving a life is exactly what occurred Oct. 10, 2019, when a U.S. Army HH-60 Black Hawk medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) flight crew, assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, received a search and rescue call after a man became lost mountain biking to the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii.
"As soon as I found out about the mission, I was out in the aircraft setting up my equipment and making sure I had everything I needed," said Sgt. Matt Standford, a medic assigned to the on board flight crew. "It was 30 degrees and snowing on top of Mauna Kea and he had already been up there for six hours. We didn't know if he suffered from hypothermia, a fall or something else. I set up IVs, blankets, oxygen, trauma bags and everything needed to sustain care in flight."
After the civilian helicopters were unable to reach the location due to weather and high altitudes, the fire department requested assistance from the U.S. Army MEDEVAC flight crew with Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, General Support Aviation Battalion (GSAB) at the Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA), located in the heart of the island of Hawaii. Within 15 minutes of the call, the crew was approved to fly in search for the lost man.
"The snow and night time were quickly approaching- so the crew had to work immediately," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jake Beckwith, the pilot in command and overall responsible for the execution of mission for the aircraft. "Our primary mission is to support U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii and the 25th Infantry Division. Search and rescue missions are a part of the job but we usually don't pick up civilians."
The HH-60 Black Hawk is not a normal helicopter. The HH-60, stands for Hospital Helicopter identified by the Red Cross, is equipped with special modifications needed to save lives and 3-25 GSAB's Charlie Company is the only aviation MEDEVAC company in the 25th Infantry Division.
The HH-60 is manned by a crew of four including a pilot, a co-pilot, a crew chief and a flight medic. The crew can easily access litters and medical systems from their positions. The flight crew can carry up to six litter patients and can accommodate up to 11 personnel.
"We were given general grid coordinates and went around the mountain where he was supposed to be," said Sgt. Zachary Hartman, the helicopter repairer on board. "We didn't know exactly where he was. We got the grid coordinates and narrowed the search but the cloud ceiling wouldn't let us go over 12,000 feet and was preventing us from seeing."
When flying, pilots are unable to see behind them, so the crew members are responsible for monitoring the left and right side of the aircraft. They have to be the eyes and ears when the aircraft is turning and landing.
"It was such bad weather with no maneuverability," said Beckwith. "The sun was going down and there were 50-60 mile winds. If we didn't find him soon, he would have spent the whole night up there in below freezing temperatures."
After circling the area a few times, the crew members spotted the man and looked for a spot to land, then the crew's medic retrieved the 53-year-old European man. They flew him directly to North Hawaii Community Hospital in Waimea, Hawaii, where he only suffered minor cold weather injuries.
"We just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and I am thankful for the crew we had," said Capt. Jeremy Bowling, the pilot on board. "I was impressed by the professionalism of this crew.
Everyone has to be an expert at their job. We are the only ones out there and sometimes, people's lives are dependent on us."
PTA is an area designated for the U.S. Army to train Soldiers in order to maintain mission readiness in the very important and strategic Pacific region.
"That training area is very important to us, so it's great for us to give back and be able to help the community," said Beckwith. "If they get in trouble we want them to know we will always be there to help."