MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. —
Thick white snow swirled through the northern sky in a heavy wave, barely hiding the green belly and graphite blades of a UH-1N Huey helicopter cutting through the blizzard.
On board were five Airmen going through their plan of action: do whatever it takes to make it safely to Cascade, Montana, and rescue a 62-year-old local man in crippling pain from his snowy home.
Captain David Horney’s mind was a calculated blizzard in itself; The aircraft commander of 40th Helicopter Squadron continuously assessed weather conditions, instrument readings, visual navigation, and aircrew safety.
With such low visibility, the stakes were high.
Just three hours earlier, the aircraft commander was informed of the mission, even before the sun rose at around 4 a.m. on November 13. He immediately shifted into gear and began scheduling while he finished his morning routine. At 5 a.m. his five-man team was assembled and reported for action.
“I was ready to do what we were trained to do,” Horney exclaimed over the mission notification. “We do a lot of mountain training, so I was excited to put that into practice and hopefully help someone with it.”
The flight crew that Horney joined included Capt. Jacques Soto, 40th HS co-pilot, Capt. Robert Lemme, flight surgeon for the 341st Operational Medical Readiness Squadron, and Senior Airmen Stephen Rotton and Timothy Woodruff, 40th HS flight engineers.
However, before the 40th HS was given clearance to depart from the base, it needed approval from the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center to deploy an active duty civilian support unit.
Lt. Col. Kenneth Green, 40th HS commander, quickly coordinated efforts to ensure the Cascade County man did not have to wait unnecessarily in an agonizing condition.
The 40th HS was called to action by the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, which initially turned to the Malmstrom Fire Department for assistance after being unable to travel to the sick man due to concerns isolated house had accumulated more than a foot of snow.
Rapid syncing between authorities was followed by a green light from AFRCC, and within two hours of approval, the crew were off in a frozen white vortex, with sharp focus on each target.
“We’ve all experienced bad weather, but it’s never pleasant,” Horney said of the wintry conditions. “It adds an element of stress and difficulty; They are becoming more aware and taking extra steps to maintain safety.”
All five crew members worked to assess the safety conditions and to confirm to each other that they wanted to continue the mission. The required visual range for the flight is half a mile, and Captains Horney and Soto worked with barely one.
“It’s never been so bad that we’ve had to quit, but I keep checking to make sure it’s safe to continue,” Horney said.
The team ran like a well-oiled machine during the hour-long flight into the Big Belt Mountains and determined that the safest way to land near the patient’s home was to hover with an out-of-ground effect — a Maneuver the one white-out by starting in a high hover and ending in a slow descent toward the fresh snow below.
Lemme and Rotton, medics and flight engineers, hiked nearly half a mile through an open snowfield and into a more wooded cluster of houses with the help of a neighbor who guided them to the correct address. Once on site, Lemme said, the relief of finding the patient in stable condition replaced the tension from traveling to the isolated area.
“[The patient] was in a lot of pain but his vitals were good so I knew we had time to get him comfortable for the return trip,” Lemme recalled. “He was very grateful when we showed up and he was sure to know my name.”
Horney and Soto positioned the helicopter closer to the cabin during this time: an area of snow-covered evergreen trees encroaching on the rotor blades, just 15 feet away.
The 62-year-old man was soon treated and returned to the helicopter for the twenty-minute flight back to the base directly at Great Falls International Airport.
An ambulance was arranged to meet the helicopter upon arrival and immediately drove the patient to the local Benefis Health System hospital.
“It’s a relief when you land after a challenging mission,” Horney said of the five-hour task. “It feels good to know that you have helped someone out of a difficult situation.”
This was the first search and rescue mission of the year for the 40th HS, whose personnel conduct training lines more than 30 times a week – with each individual flying two to three times a week for emergency procedures, tactical response and security presence.
Seamless coordination between the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, Malmstrom Air Force Base, Great Falls International Airport and the Benefis Health System connects the local community and the military community.
“The longstanding relationship between the Airmen at Malmstrom Air Force Base and the local community is of the utmost importance to us,” said Col. Barry E. Little, commander, 341st Missile Squadron. “Wing One is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a week days a year to provide support when needed and always happy to help.”