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Sending in the Blackhawks-When Nothing Else Will Do
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Friday, November 3, 2023
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

The rotor blades on the helicopter thwapped as the blast of wind from the helicopter’s approach nearly knocked down a couple bystanders on the ground.

The sagebrush lining the flats along Trail Creek Road spun and tiny bits of dirt and straw grass flew up in the air as an Idaho Army National guardsman decked out in camouflage was lowered through the air on a hoist. The guardsman landed on the ground in just over a minute’s time, coming in at the side of a patient who had been strapped on a roll-up plastic stretcher.

He bent over and hooked the man to the hoist, a hydraulic or electric drive system that winds a cable around a drum. Then he attached a tether line to the bottom of the stretcher that he could control from the ground in case the stretcher started spinning around as it was being raised up to the hovering helicopter.

Within minutes the stretcher was being loaded into the helicopter, and minutes later the guardsman was back in, as well, ready to fly out.

In this case, the patient was a dummy. But the guardsmen’s trip from Boise was not in vain. The exercise served as a demonstration for some of the 600-plus first responders attending Saint Alphonsus’ Ski and Mountain Trauma Conference going on just up the road at Sun Valley Resort. It also offered them a chance to get hands-on experience packaging a patient for the two-pilot UH-72 Lakota helicopter.

Even more importantly, it spread the word that the Idaho National Guard has helicopters with hoists available at no cost for situations that Life Flight and other air ambulance services can’t access.

“We’re very effective and very efficient at what we do, but a lot of Search and Rescue teams don’t know about us,” said Jason Hopkins, CW4.

The Idaho National Guard has the only hoist helicopters in Idaho, said Hopkins. They’re on hand to deploy to natural disasters.

“And we can fly all over Idaho to get hikers and others out of a tough spot.”

In fact, the Guard has used the helicopters to fly over cornfields in Treasure Valley searching for a 4-year-old from Fruitland. They rescued a hunter who cut his femoral artery while hunting elk near Arrowrock Reservoir.  And they have assisted on rescues in Sandpoint.

The Idaho National Guard has two Lakota helicopters and eight Blackhawk helicopters with hoists. The Lakota, which costs in the vicinity of $14 million,  is one of the most modern helicopters but the Guard flies the Blackhawks when icy weather is in the forecast.

The Guard can lower the hoist 300 feet threading it through small areas measuring 10 feet in diameter  in the woods to access patients. But they prefer to limit to 150 feet or less to minimize chances of spinning. They can take two litters at a time, provided they don’t exceed 550 pounds in the light utility Lakota and 600 pounds in the Blackhawk.

When someone calls for a hoist, the call goes to a central agency in Florida and dispatchers there figure out who is the closest to the emergency situation. Personnel can fly out of Boise in 30 minutes during working hours. It’ll take longer if it’s at night and personnel have to report to the base.

While rescuers are dealing with the patient on the ground, Hopkins said, the helicopters will generally fly a short distance away, sometimes waiting on a nearby ridge so the noise and wind generated by the rotor blades doesn’t distract rescuers and patient.

They will take patients to a nearby Life Flight or other air ambulance for transfer when possible since those air ambulances are dependent on the revenue from their flights, he added.

“We’ve only taken one or two patients directly to the hospital.”

The team trains constantly as precision hoisting requires skilled, technically proficient teams.

“We train on it constantly—we’re trying to gear up to do more swift water rescues where patients are a moving target,” he said. “And we’ll fly to you and work with your rescuer squad, too,” he told the responders.

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