Chinook landing

It all started with a pounding on the front door at 5:00 AM. We were living in a house inside Mount Rainier National Park. I was directing youth programs in the park and at the time coordinating helicopter support from the US Army Reserve 92nd “Hooker” squadron out of the Seattle area in Washington State. For the better part of the summer, we had access to 10 or more of the very big, twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook helicopters to fly materials and supplies into the back country for our youth projects.

Standing at the door, was one of the mountain rescue rangers from the park. Knowing we had more than a couple of Chinooks camped out at the temporary landing zone/base camp at the time, he asked, “Do you think any of your Army guys would like to help with a high-altitude rescue?”

I said I didn’t know but we could go ask. I knew these guys would be up for almost anything. Many were combat veterans who I had seen in the park do amazing things with the Chinooks over the past weeks.

Off to the LZ. We went and woke up the pilots and crew. Looking up, we could see clear blue sky, but we were blanketed by thick ground fog. Rules say you don’t take off in this ground hugging soup, but the crew said, “Let’s go pull the injured climbing party off the mountain stuck at 13,500+ feet.”

A normal medical emergency helicopter we often see at accident scenes could not get up to that altitude. The air is too thin to create lift for a normal helicopter. Chinooks, however, can handle 15,000 feet or more.

When we lifted off, I was in the jump seat between the two pilots with a topographic map on my lap. A spot was marked as to where the climbing party was supposed to be.

Clearing the fog quickly, we were climbing steadily in the early morning sun. The huge mass of 14,400-foot Mount Rainier was directly ahead. After a while, some small black dots appeared on the steep slope of the mountain. Yes, those are not rocks, but rocks don’t have arms that wave. Now there was no flat place to set down, just a very steep slope of snow.

Chinook landing

Just another day at the office.

The pilot turned the Chinook around and backed into the slope. The crew chief watched the back rotor from the open ramp, making sure the rotors didn’t hit the slope. I watched out the side door. We touched the snow with the rear landing gear, lowered the ramp and held a hover.

We rushed out and pulled everyone inside. The ramp came up, nose dropped, and we flew off the slope heading directly to the hospital in Puyallup. During the flight, the crew chief and park ranger stabilized the injured climbers. We arrived about 30 minutes later.

After arriving at the hospital, our next challenge was to find a place to land. The helipad used by other small helicopters was not big and strong enough to hold a Chinook. A call from the park gave the hospital notice we were headed their way, so they had an ambulance ready to meet us at the empty parking lot for the hospital.

As we settled down, I watched out the side window. All the fences of the houses bordering the parking lot were instantly flattened as the rotor wash blew everything down. Some home owners were going to be unhappy. I went into the hospital to find someone in charge to let them know of the problem heading their way with their neighbors.

The administer I met said, “No problem, we will handle it.” Soon we were buttoned up, back in the air headed back to Mount Rainier. Everyone felt pretty good about this successful impromptu morning mission.

Later that afternoon, I was on another aircraft coming back to the LZ after flying materials for a project. We got a call to assist with another rescue. A hiker had fallen and was seriously hurt. We found a place close by to set down. The rangers loaded the hiker and off we went to Puyallup for the second time that day.

Arriving at the hospital, the parking lot was now full of cars, so we landed at the fairgrounds across from the hospital, where the ambulance met us. I rode over to the hospital in the ambulance and in the hallway, I met the same administrator I had seen earlier early in the morning. He told me they had a staff meeting and decided to build a landing pad for Chinooks at the fairgrounds across the street from the hospital..

As a result of those rescues and other work by the Army Chinooks in 1982, part of the current training program for CH-47 Chinook pilots and crews at US Army base Fort Lewis, Tacoma, includes supporting high altitude rescues at Mount Rainier. Since then, CH-47 Chinooks have participated in many rescues at Mount Rainer National Park. It all began with the summer Youth Conservation Corps program in 1980 and the US Army Reserve, 92nd “Happy Hookers” Heavy Lift Squadron out of Paine Field, Everett, Washington.

6 replies
  1. Brandon
    Brandon says:

    Was this at Good Samaritan by the fairgrounds? I’m trying to imagine that parking lot being big enough to handle a Chinook. Definitely not something one sees everyday around there.

    Reply
  2. JOHN ROUSCH
    JOHN ROUSCH says:

    Brandon, I don’t recall the hospital name, but if it was the one by the fairgrounds , yes it was. I do remember the parking lot being a bit tight. I expect the layout by this time has changed a great deal. It was a great many years ago. It is nice to know as a result of what we did that summer, it led to the use of the Chinooks for rescues and other support projects.

    The time spent as a crew member from the National Park Service on the CH-47 was one of the most interesting and rewarding times had while working for the NPS. The NPS sent me to “Chinook School” in Boise Idaho for a couple of weeks to learn about loading and helicopter dynamics and operations. That led to me eventually getting my pilot’s license.

    Reply
  3. Jason Archambeault
    Jason Archambeault says:

    John, this is a great story and as a pilot I can imagine something like this being very intimidating to attempt. The Chinook or the “Sh!*Hook” as the guys in the Army affectionately call it, is a good, reliable bird and that’s why it’s remained in service for as long as it has. I was in the Navy for a while and of course the inter service rivalry is still there (It’s all in good fun of course). A lot of my freinds were in the Army and that’s how I learned of it’s nickname.

    Reply
  4. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    The Chinook is quite a capable bird in the hands of a very good pilot. As I understand it, it is the fastest helicopter in the military, unless another model has been added recently. So many Vietnam helicopter pilots were real heros in that conflict as they made numerous rescue flights into hostile jungle environments. I’m quite sure those pilots find state side operations mundane even in emergency situations compared to environment they often found themselves in Southeast Asia. Thanks for sharing!!

    Reply
  5. JOHN ROUSCH
    JOHN ROUSCH says:

    Mike, thanks for the comments. The pilots I worked with were Army Reserve and were mostly Vietnam veterans and very skilled. There were many other tight and unusual landings and setting of sling loads in places where there was no place to set down.

    We hauled concrete in a bucket up to 10,000 feet to pour a pad at Camp Muir the main base camp used by climbers from the west side. we also went and picked up a hiker that had a heart attack on the trail near the Paradise area. we landed a bit away from where the hiker was being administered by a ranger. Putting him on a stokes, the other ranger did compressions and I did mouth to mouth as we carried him back up to the Chinook about 75 yards. We flew him to the Paradise visitor center parking lot and the ambulance. unfortunately he did not make it. He had passed by the time we got to the parking lot. I will never forget his wife being there and her emotion. Things like that stick with you.

    Reply

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