WASHINGTON - On the National Guard’s 387th birthday, another milestone anniversary represents the impact the Guard has in more than 2,600 communities across the country.
Twenty years ago, on the Guard’s 367th birthday, a group of Oregon National Guard members answered an urgent call from Oregon Emergency Management — risking their lives to perform an over-water rescue on Oregon’s Sandy River.
The pilot in command that dark, snowy evening was then-Lt. Col. Dan Hokanson, who now serves as the 29th chief of the National Guard Bureau. While he’s proud of his part in the mission, his pride stems from the actions of his crew.
“Like many Guard service members, they represent the spirit, patriotism, and selfless service to our communities and nation … and our pledge to be ‘Always Ready, Always There,’” Hokanson said.
Below is an account of the rescue mission extracted from official correspondence documenting the mission.
On Dec. 13, 2003, the Oregon Emergency Management Agency alerted Lt. Col. Dan Hokanson, project officer for Oregon Army National Guard's Military Air Rescue Team, about a rescue mission on the Sandy River. The call was received at 5:30 p.m. and the mission involved rescuing two kayakers who were holding on to a sandbar that was slowly submerging due to rising storm rains.
A ground rescue team could not reach the kayakers, even after shooting a rope across the river, because the kayakers were so cold from 38-degree river water they could not hold onto the rope. A boat rescue was determined to be the last resort (after a helicopter) due to the rising, swift water at the scene and 20- to 30-foot trees floating downstream. The kayakers had been in the water for over three hours and were bordering on hypothermia.
Hokanson alerted Capt. Brian Houston, UH-60 Black Hawk pilot, Flight Medic Staff Sgt. Travis Davidson, and crew chiefs Staff Sgt. Mark Braeme and Sgt. Rob Armstrong en route to the airfield via cell phone. The crew assembled at the airfield, then prepared the aircraft, briefed and departed on the mission under night vision goggles at 6:30 p.m. aboard Black Hawk 669.
The worst forecast weather for the mission was a 1,500-foot broken cloud layer with 3 miles of visibility due to heavy rain. There was no moon illumination and the outside air temperature was 36 degrees when the crew headed to the rescue site about 45 miles away.
Shortly after takeoff, the crew encountered weather much worse than forecast. Cloud ceilings varied from 500 to 900 feet above ground level and visibility varied from one-half to 3 miles due to storm cells in the area. The crew reduced speed on the aircraft to 100 knots to navigate around as many rain cells as possible.
Twenty-five miles out from the incident site the weather deteriorated to 500-foot ceilings and visibility down to one-half mile. The crew reduced speed and altitude and had to deviate from a direct route due to accumulating ground fog and reduced visibility. Five miles from the scene, the aircraft encountered heavy snow and ceilings came down as low as 300 feet, but visibility remained at one-half mile.
The crew was already using anti-ice equipment, but the aircraft began to accumulate snow and ice on its exterior. The crew contacted the ground rescue teams and was advised of an estimated 200- to 300-foot ceiling with heavy snowfall at the scene. At about a mile out, Houston began to lose sight of the ground. Hokanson took the controls and sighted the rescue vehicles' emergency lights through the fog. The emergency vehicle lights silhouetted the high-tension wires just upstream from the kayakers. Hokanson maneuvered the aircraft into the river valley and climbed into the bottom of the cloud ceilings to cross the powerlines. The crew then maneuvered over the water to a position 120 feet above the kayakers, which they determined to be the safest altitude to stabilize the aircraft without the rotor wash affecting the kayakers. Armstrong and Braeme cleared the aircraft and prepared Powell for hoist extraction of the two kayakers.
Powell was lowered by hoist to the first kayaker and, as he reached for him, his foot hit the river current and he was momentarily submerged in the frigid waters. Powell then reached the first kayaker, secured him to his Jungle Penetrator and was then hoisted back to the aircraft.
After securing the first kayaker in the aircraft, Powell prepared to go down again. Armstrong lost feeling in his thumb (which was used to operate the hoist) due to the freezing temperatures and Braeme came over to assist. Powell was then lowered to the river where he once again entered the water momentarily before grabbing the second kayaker. Armstrong hoisted him up immediately as he and the victim began to drift into the river's current, which required Powell to grab the female kayaker and hold on to her up to the aircraft.
At the aircraft, both Braeme and Powell had to help bring the kayaker into the aircraft as the cold was affecting everyone's coordination and ability to hold anything. As the hoist operations were conducted, the pilots maintained the aircraft at a hover with lateral visibility obstructed by ice and snow accumulation on the aircraft doors. The cloud ceiling and fog also continued to come down to just above the helicopter's rotor system and the pilots' visibility was reduced to the point they could not see beyond the shoreline of the river.
Once Powell and the two kayakers were on board, the crew determined the cloud ceiling was 200 feet above the ground and visibility was less than one-quarter mile. Hokanson hovered the aircraft over to the bank of the river and attempted to follow a road, but he began losing sight of the ground. At this time, both victims were close to hypothermic and Powell began throwing up the river water he had ingested. With deteriorating weather, Hokanson elected to land the aircraft in a maintenance yard where the crew still had sight of the ground.
Ground crews moved equipment by hand to clear a spot for the helicopter, with the rotor blades clearing nearby concrete structures by just 2 to 3 feet. Once the helicopter was on the ground, an ambulance met the aircraft and both kayakers and Powell were treated for exposure and hypothermia. The kayakers fully recovered, no personnel were injured during the rescue and the crew of Black Hawk 669 was credited with two saves.
The National Guard serves as the combat reserve of the Army and the Air Force, and being manned, trained and equipped to fight and win the nation’s wars, helps communities across the country in their greatest times of need, Hokanson said.
While Armstrong and Powell have since retired from military service, Houston and Braeme continue their service in the ranks of colonel and chief warrant officer 5, respectively.