JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - Soldiers assigned to the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade assisted the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office in the search for 1st Lt. Brian Yang, a platoon leader assigned to 593rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, on July 20 and 21.
"When we received the mission at 11:35 a.m. on July 20, we immediately diverted aircraft that were about to start training flights to the search mission," said Maj. Jason Kowrach, the 16th CAB operations officer. "Then almost 30 members of the combined brigade and battalion staffs sat down and started to deliberately plan the rest of our support."
He said military equipment and training unique to Army aviation made it possible to assist in the search in a challenging environment.
"The area that the missing Soldier was believed to be in was massive," said Kowrach, "But in the end, the main effort brought to this mission was the hoist. Without it, it would have been impossible to complete the recovery without risking more lives on the ground."
Throughout the search effort, the brigade had eight aircraft, in shifts, searching the area around Coldwater Lake, just outside Mount Saint Helens, Wash. where 1st Lt. Yang's phone was traced to and later found inside his vehicle.
"Initially, on the 20th, we had AH-64 Apache helicopters from our cavalry squadron and attack battalion searching in patterns. The $40 million Apache has the latest technology, including color daytime sensors and infrared sights for searching at night," said Kowrach.
In the early morning of July 21, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter inserted a Special Forces team into the area to bolster the search capabilities of the Cowlitz County Sheriff.
"We were tasked to transport the Special Forces team to the search area, and after insertion, we refueled and returned to continue our search from the air," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Thomas Henderson, a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot assigned to 2-158 Assault Helicopter Battalion. "We split the search grid up, and we happened to be the crew that was searching the ridge where he was found. We didn't see him initially, but we saw the hikers that had found him, and they pointed him out to us. Our rotor wash was endangering the hikers, and we were running low on fuel, so we called for an Apache to come take our spot because they can stay farther out but still maintain visual contact with their camera system."
The 16th CAB was called upon to assist in the search for their unique set of equipment, manpower, and training. Over the course of the 33-hour mission, the brigade would send nine aircraft up, racking up 49 total flight hours among 22 pilots and aircrew members.
According to a press release published by the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office, at 1:53 p.m. two hikers called Cowlitz 911 to report finding a hiker on a ridge below them. Once the search and rescue team responded, they confirmed that it was Yang, who was pronounced deceased.
Once the announcement was made, the Raptor Brigade was tasked with assisting in the transportation of Yang’s remains off the dangerous slope.
"It was relayed to us that the rescue mission was now a recovery mission, and the HH-60 Black Hawk medical evacuation helicopter we had on standby in Yakima needed to be called in due to its unique capability of being able to utilize a hoist. It's heartbreaking that we weren't able to hoist 1st Lt. Yang out of there alive, but we don't leave people behind, and that extends beyond missions in combat." Kowrach said.
The same U.S. Army Air Ambulance Detachment in Yakima that hoisted 1st Lt. Yang's remains from the ridge regularly supports the civil authorities of central Washington with aerial medical evacuation support. In the four days prior to receiving the mission, it had conducted six medical evacuations alone- three of which were in the Mount Saint Helens and Gifford-Pinchot National Forest area where Yang had disappeared.
"Our team searched approximately 13,500 acres in less than a day and a half, and we were prepared with a plan to continue supporting the search for much longer," Kowrach said, "If it weren't for our pilots, crew chiefs, maintainers, and support personnel training day and night we wouldn't have been able to respond as effectively as we did to these kinds of situations."