As they lowered rescue swimmer Craig Powers 120 feet to pluck injured hiker Keith Hutchins off a Mount Ripinsky cliffside, U.S. Coast Guard crewmen lost visibility out their port and forward windows, then, several times, lost sight of Hutchins and Powers below.
"As we started the hoist, we were in a cloud," pilot Andy Schanno said in an interview this week.
But out the starboard side of their craft, they could make out the mountain beside them as well as their rotor, spinning only about 35 feet away from it during the high-angle rescue Jan. 6.
"This is something we don’t do very often. We don’t have terrain-avoidance radar. We can fly over water without visibility, but it’s dangerous to fly over mountains in those same conditions," Schanno said.
The chopper was blowing snow from the mountain down on Powers and Hutchins, and Schanno and co-pilot Mike Snyder – who steered the craft from his starboard seat – watched for a white-out effect from their 100 mph rotor wash that could threaten their craft by eliminating their last visual bearings.
In a white-out, choppers tend to drift, and their craft’s distance to the cliff was about an eighth of an inch on the "cyclic" or steering mechanism, Schanno said. "There wasn’t much room for margin of error."
Rotor wash – which can push around port-a-potties and propane tanks – also could start a landslide, or literally blow Hutchins off his precarious perch.
Meanwhile, flight mechanic Nick Guimetti, operating the hoist tethered to Powers, was left to guesswork, as blowing snow shrouded Powers and the man he was trying to save.
Too much slack and Powers would hit the mountain, Schanno said. Not enough, and Powers might knock Hutchins off the mountain. "He did an incredible job maintaining that tension, and that’s something he wasn’t able to practice for."
Powers, who on most rescues is about 30 feet up in the air, was dangling 2,600 feet up. Once in the clouds, there was no way for him to communicate with Guimetti. Because rotor wash drowns out radio transmission, rescue swimmers are trained to communicate with hand signals, but now Powers couldn’t see the helicopter.
Guimetti waited for clear spots amid the swirling snow.
The chopper crew was concerned about Hutchins’ back injuries, but they couldn’t lower a cage or "litter" for him because that would involve untethering – and endangering – Powers. "Our biggest concern was blowing Keith off the mountain. Our second biggest was we’d hate to do this and leave him paralyzed. At the same time, it was, take that risk or leave him to die."
A few minutes earlier, the chopper had surveyed Hutchins’ position and determined no ground crews were likely to reach him that day. Hutchins’ chances of surviving a second night braced against the mountain without gear or water, were slim, the crew decided.
Lashed to Powers, Hutchins was hoisted aboard and laid out on the chopper floor. But with visibility still limited to the mountainside, co-pilot Snyder had to inch the chopper down along its face until the craft got below cloud level and he regained visibility on his port side.
Schanno – the pilot who spotted Hutchins about 1,000 feet above his presumed location – said the hiker was a tiny, black dot against a white backdrop, come to rest in a steep chute. "If he took one step farther, he would have gone to the bottom. It wasn’t vertical, but it was close enough."
In 14 years of piloting, Schanno has lifted people to safety about two dozen times. Complications including the tight angle, a power issue complicated by downdrafts that forced the dumping of 1,000 pounds of fuel, and about a half-hour of maneuvering to find a safe approach, made the Jan. 6 rescue one of his most difficult, he said. "It would have been a tough hoist on a beautiful, sunny day."
He gave credit to his crew, to Haines rescue personnel and to his modified, MH-60T "Tango"-model helicopter, new last summer. The craft has a spotlight like an enormous light saber that helped the crew narrow down Hutchins’ location the day before the rescue, he said.
"It’s great when you work on a case like this and everything works out right. If you do this long enough, there are times when everything you can do still isn’t enough and a happy ending isn’t meant to be," he said. "This is good."