News Precision flying made difference in rescue

The Advertiser
By Bruce Brown
May 4, 2011

Capt. Chris Heathscott has been in the Arkansas National Guard for some 25 years. He's not sure he's ever seen precision flying quite like the mission that rescued eight members of Lafayette's Boy Scout Troop 162 on Tuesday.

Six scouts and two adult leaders were evacuated from near the banks of the Little Missouri River, which had been flooded by torrential rains over the weekend on the Eagle Rock Loop Trail in Montgomery County in west-central Arkansas.

"I've been on a lot of search missions with the Guard, and I can't say enough about the way the pilot and co-pilot managed the situation," said Heathscott, in his sixth year with the ANG's state public affairs office. "I don't think I've seen that kind of precision teamwork in such an environment."

CWO4 David Specht piloted the UH-72A Lakota Light Utility Helicopter, while co-pilot CWO2 Todd Adams was the spotter.

"Adams had to look out the front, back, sides and rear, looking for debris, water, the tree line, to let Specht know where he was," Heathscott said.

There wasn't much room to operate, but they had already been designated the best option for rescue.

"The Guard was contacted around 3 p.m. on Monday," Heathscott said. "The problem was the weather. There was a low ceiling and bad weather, and that forced us to delay. Approximately midnight, we started to prepare, and left just after 12:30."

After a 30-45 minute flight, the Lakota was on the ground at a staging area set up by local authorities.

"We pulled the sheriff on board and started looking for them," Heathscott said. "We were wearing night goggles, and in a pretty quick turnaround time, we were able to find them. When we flew over them, we saw several flashlights pointed up at us.

"The terrain is very rugged and heavily wooded, but we had been proactive. We had two military duffel bags that we could drop, with supplies in them like blankets, food, water, ponchos, maps and a communications radio, which unfortunately didn't work. We dropped them from 70 meters.

"At that point, we had to wait until sunlight, so we would have a better opportunity to land. There was a very narrow path between the banks and the tree line, a very narrow spot to touch down. The campers were 200-300 meters up the bank, away from the water."

The Guard crew was able to bring the Scouts out in two trips, carrying them back to the original staging area in rural Arkansas.

"They were all in good condition, good spirits," Heathscott said. "They were proud to get the blankets and food, but I think they were more excited about the helicopter ride. I'm sure it was a huge relief for everyone involved."

While emergency situations draw the attention of local and state agencies such as the Arkansas State Police, the Guard was best able to respond to the search for the Scouts.

"It's not a competition at all," Heathscott said. "The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management manages all such situations. They try to assess the need, and select the agency to handle that need. With certain things, the Guard gets looked at first.

"With the helicopter assets we have, we are well-equipped for a quick search. That's what we do. In such situations, the Guard is often one of the first ADEM looks at."

The portion of Arkansas involved in the rescue is known as a tornado alley, but more recently has been prone to flooding from heavy spring rains. Last June, some 20 campers lost their lives when river waters rose suddenly overnight in the Albert Pike Recreation Area, catching many unaware and vulnerable.

This week's episode had a happier ending.

"The fact that they were Boy Scouts helped us to think that they might be handling it OK," Heathscott said. "But, as Adams said, you've got to plan for the worst case because when you walk in you never know what you'll find."

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