Are Military Helicopters Part of Your Arsenal?


Are Military Helicopters Part of Your Arsenal?

By Barry D. Smith May 01, 2018

United States military helicopters have been used during civilian emergencies around the world since the beginning of their service in late World War ll. Typically these have been major events such as earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes. Rescues were often performed on an ad-hoc basis without established procedures or coordination with civil authorities.

In 1969 the federal government developed the National Search and Rescue Plan to help coordinate military assistance to state and local governments. In general it stipulated that the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) would be responsible for coordinating all assistance for incidents over the ocean and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) for all federal assistance over land.

Military helicopter rescue units also have a long tradition of working alongside local civilian first responders. Based on the experience of military air ambulance and rescue units in Vietnam, the Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic (MAST) program began in 1970. This program allowed U.S. Army and USAF helicopters to quickly respond to civilian trauma scenes, usually vehicle accidents, and transport patients to civilian hospitals. At the program’s height 29 military units were participating. As civilian air ambulance services became more prolific, the MAST units ceased operations. 

However, that doesn’t mean the spirit of the MAST mission has disappeared. Several military units around the country maintain strong working relationships with civil fire and rescue units that have streamlined requesting procedures to speed responses. These relationships typically develop because of the unique capabilities of the military helicopters and crews. The units have found that responding to local emergencies is excellent training for the helicopter crews, as well as giving them real-world missions that can have a positive impact on their communities.

U.S. Army Reserve

Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, reaching an elevation of more than 14,000 feet, is a remote and dangerous place. Each year 12,000 people from all over the world try to climb to the top. Some are killed, and others are injured or become ill due to the cold or high altitude.

Reaching the victims of injury and illness is very difficult for park rangers. However, they have a unique tool they can call upon: the U.S. Army Reserve CH-47 Chinook helicopters based nearby at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The Chinook is a powerful craft that can hover at the mountain’s summit. Every year since 1999, B Company, 1st Battalion, 214th Aviation Regiment has trained for and responded to rescues on the mountain. 

The unit has a written memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Mt. Rainier National Park. “Our MOU with Mt. Rainier is specific to that park,” explains CW4 Richard Bovey, a supervisory instructor pilot with B Company. “It details exactly what kind of assistance we will provide, how many crews will be trained and qualified, response times, and season start and stop dates. The standby period is generally June 1–September 15. We have an excellent relationship with the rangers. We enjoy working with them, and they are very professional. Every time we work with them, we learn something new. It is a mutually beneficial relationship. They view us as another tool in their rescue toolbox.” 

The unit is also on a list of military assets that can be deployed for any natural or manmade disaster in the Pacific Northwest or any other part of the U.S. It responded to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 as well as other hurricanes.

“We have also worked with the USAF Reserve 304th Rescue Squadron out of Portland, Ore., and their pararescuers,” Bovey says. “They trained the USAF 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, which is based here at Lewis-McChord. We now have a self-contained asset on base that can perform mountain rescue missions anywhere. It also helps with our military missions because these are the people we’d be dealing with in theater on a military combat mission.” 

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A normal crew for a rescue is five: two pilots and three crew members in the cabin. The latter are in charge of the hoisting, controlling everyone in the cabin, rescuers and victims, and obstacle avoidance. The CH-47 is a large helicopter, so it’s important to have someone in the back who can make sure it doesn’t get too close to any rocks or trees. They provide pilots the situational awareness needed to perform the rescue. 

“We can perform fore- and aft-only gear landings if the slope is too steep,” says Bovey. “It is no more challenging than any other maneuver but requires very good crew coordination. Because the Chinook is so large, we live and die by our crew coordination. The pilots have to be able to interpret what the crew members in the back are telling them into a mental picture to perform what the crew wants us to do. We do these types of landings very often. It can be safer and faster than a hoist rescue. The two-gear and pinnacle landings are considered base tasks all Chinook crews regularly train for, not just the rescue crews. So whether we’re doing them on a rescue mission or training, it’s something we have to do anyway. The techniques for hovering/landing in snow are the same for brownout landings in the desert we’ve all experienced in Afghanistan. It’s another skill that translates from our desert flying and is good training for our military mission.” 

U.S. Navy

There are U.S. Navy SAR helicopter units based at naval air stations at Whidbey Island, Wash.; Fallon, Nev.; Lemoore, Calif.; China Lake, Calif.; Key West, Fla.; and Patuxent River, Md. All assist with local civilian emergencies as they are able. Whidbey Island Naval Air Station sits in the middle of Puget Sound. This large base is home to several squadrons of maritime-patrol and electronic-countermeasures aircraft. The base has a section of three MH-60S SAR helicopters to recover the crews of any aircraft that crash.

Their tasking for civilian SAR missions comes from the USAF’s rescue coordination center. The unit also has a memorandum of understanding with the state of Washington. In addition it’s part of Northwest Regional Aviation (NWRA), a coalition of local, state, and military aviation units that meets quarterly to better coordinate aviation response to emergencies in the Pacific Northwest.

Members use the organization to coordinate responses and keep each other up to date on available resources and unit capabilities. The unit also trains with civilian ground rescue agencies to show them the aircraft and discuss procedures and capabilities. in addition, it’s part of the regional disaster plan and has participated in drills involving earthquake and tsunami scenarios. 

Once a mission is received, members try to communicate with the requesting agency to get as much specific information as possible. For example, for a medevac they want to talk to a nurse or doctor to see whether an extra medical crew might be needed. They often work with local sheriff departments and national park rangers during rescue missions. 

The helicopters are equipped and crewed for SAR missions on all flights. Because of the amount of mountain flying performed, pilots must have SAR mountain training, as both a command pilot and a copilot, before they can fly actual SAR missions. In the cabin there is a crew chief, a helicopter inland-rescue air (HIRA) crew member/rescue swimmer, and a SAR medical technician. They are available 24/7.
Depending on the day and time, one crew is on alert status with anywhere from a 15- to 60-minute recall, depending on military flight operations. They tend to stay within 150–200 miles of the air station. If needed, they can refuel at civilian airports on an actual mission.

They have conducted several rescue missions at altitudes as high as 10,000 feet. They can fly at up to 13,000 feet for 30 minutes without supplemental oxygen. How high they can perform a hoist depends on the density altitude and how much fuel is on board. For high-altitude rescues they will offload as much nonessential gear as they can. That might include one of the crew.

The crews brief every morning for the day’s conditions. They create a chart for how much power they anticipate they will need at all altitudes up to 10,000 feet. This gives a rough idea of how high they can complete a rescue mission that day. 

“We are unique among the U.S. Navy SAR helicopter units in that all of our qualified SAR medical technicians are graduates of civilian paramedic programs and operate as paramedics on missions,” says HM3 John Siedler, a SAR corpsman. “We’ve all paid our own way to go to paramedic school, so we’re able to carry more medications and perform advanced skills. We have done this because of the large number of missions we do.”

Siedler says their unit is one of the most active helicopter SAR units in the Department of Defense. In addition to SAR missions, they also conduct critical care medevacs from the island hospitals for patients on multiple medication drips and/or ventilators. These include critical cardiac patients and high-risk pregnancies. They get these patients because the unit can fly in weather conditions civilian helicopter air ambulances cannot. “While we can’t mandate that the SAR medical technicians go to paramedic school,” Siedler says, “it’s a standard we’ve all voluntarily set for ourselves to give the best care possible to our patients.” 

Army National Guard

Several states have created programs that use local first responders to act as rescue personnel on board Army National Guard (ANG) helicopters. These teams are primarily trained for water rescues during flood events but have also been used in mountainous areas where only hoist-equipped helicopters can complete rescues.

Participating states are Texas, Maryland, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. They use both UH-60 Black Hawk and UH-72 Lakota helicopters. All except Texas call the program the Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team, or HART. In Texas it’s the Helicopter Search and Rescue Technician program, or HSART, and is part of Texas Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1.

The typical ANG crew is two pilots and a crew chief. The crew chief operates the hoist. The ANG also provides logistic support such as sleeping quarters and meals during missions. The civilian agencies provide rescue swimmers and all rescue equipment.

“In Texas, during deployments, the military helicopters are assigned to Task Force 1,” explains D.J. Walker, a lieutenant with the Austin Fire Department and a helicopter manager for the task force. “The number of HSART/helicopter teams that can be deployed at any given time depends on how many helicopters the Texas National Guard can provide. With helicopter units being deployed overseas and helicopters undergoing maintenance, it all depends. We try to have eight available but have fielded as many as 12 and as few as four. Task Force 1 can support 8–10 helicopters at any given time with rescue swimmers. The number of trained HSARTs varies during the year as people leave the team and come on, but we usually have 15–20 people qualified at any given time.”

Medical capabilities vary among HSARTs, as not all are paramedics. All can provide EMT care. Some members are paramedics and flight nurses and have arrangements with their home organizations to bring ALS gear with them on deployments. That was important during Hurricane Harvey, as they conducted transfers of some critical patients.

Initial training consists of a weeklong rescue swimmer course that includes swimming techniques, rescue devices, air crew coordination, and some basic training with the ANG helicopters. Each HSART has a task book with specific training that must be completed and checked off by an instructor. It is a crawl/walk/run process that starts with basic hoist skills and progresses through the different rescue devices. From there more complex and challenging rescue scenarios are taught and practiced. These include land and water, vehicles, and—one of the most challenging—people stuck in trees. 

“Ongoing training is scheduled for the third Wednesday of every month,” says Walker. “Each month the training varies based on actual situations the crews might face. In addition, every quarter there are two or three opportunities to train with other organizations, either helicopter or ground rescue, as well as drills or exercises involving other agencies. We’ve been doing a lot recently with the state police and game wardens, who have hoist-equipped helicopters. We look to cross-train so we can put some of our HSARTs on their helicopters during actual flood events. We’ve been doing more night rescue training with military night-vision goggles (NVGs). We performed our first night rescues with NVGs during Hurricane Harvey.” 

Though TF-1 is not technically a HSART team, many of those programs have asked them to help conduct their initial training over the years. They keep in contact and exchange information and lessons learned. The Missouri National Guard is the latest HART program and performed some of its initial training with TF-1 in Texas.

Both North and South Carolina HART teams were sent to Houston through interstate agreements for Hurricane Harvey. (They were a welcome sight, as the Texas crews were exhausted by then.) When the rescue operations wound down, TF-1 and the HART teams got together for training and discussion sessions to exchange ideas and techniques.

“We respond to two types of events,” says Walker. “One tends to be a local event where the authorities request us through the state. We call those no-notice events. The rescue swimmers are divided into three teams: red, white, and blue. Each month one color is first up, one is on standby, and the last is on stand-down. I’ve been in the air within one hour of alert, but we try to be in the air with a team in two hours as our standard. 

“Then we have known events such as hurricanes or large storms. The state emergency management operations center watches the weather on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. They can activate crews and even preposition them to areas of the state to respond as quickly as possible after it’s safe to fly. We’ll alert the teams about possible flooding situations that might occur and check on everyone’s short- and long-term availability. The HSART teams will respond to anywhere in Texas as well as several other states that have emergency response agreements with Texas.” 

Preparation Is Key

Military helicopters can be an important tool for local and regional disasters as well as rescue missions in difficult-to-reach places. It is crucial to reach out to these resources before you need them to find out what they can and can’t do.

The best place to start is with your state National Guard headquarters. You might find a valuable new tool for your box.  

Barry D. Smith is an instructor in the Education Department at the Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority (REMSA) in Reno, Nev. Contact him at

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