Lying on the ground, he
leaned his head and saw the small bird that filled the air with the
sounds of a warm summer afternoon. The sun had woken him earlier
and lit the mountaintops, which burst into an array of color.
As the summer breeze cooled him, Alexander Ryan thought of the
events that placed him deep in the heart of the Cascade Mountain
Range, and the five friends who braved the rugged terrain alongside
him. It would have been a perfect moment had it not been for the
searing pain throbbing through his left ankle.
The men made great time July 16, traveling more than seven miles
and climbing more than 4,400 feet. It had not been easy,
considering Mr. Ryan was carrying a 52-pound pack. But hiking with
his friends up a steep pass, he lost his footing in a stream and
caught and broke his ankle between two boulders.
“It felt like someone had taken a hot iron and ground it
through the bones of my leg,” Mr. Ryan said. The Washington
native could have walked out. In fact, he walked a mile from the
stream back to his camp. Once there, the men, including a doctor,
decided it would be best to call for help to prevent further damage
to the ankle.
“Thank God one of my friends had a cell phone and Global
Positioning System (unit so) we were able to … call for
help,” he said.
Unknown to him, less than a 20 minute flight away, a man was
caught in another type of distress. He was trapped in the bitter
grasp of the mountains -- his 12-year-old son in agony before him
with a broken tibia in his left leg. That evening, around 10 p.m.,
a rescue crew of local sheriffs officers and medics, arrived at
their position. But because of the steep incline, they were unable
to bring a stretcher with them.
“It was incredibly steep terrain, and no search and rescue
team could have transported anyone out,” said Gene Ellis, a
That night, the sheriff’s department called the Air Force
Rescue Coordination Center at Langley Air Force Base, Va. Flying in
and out of mountainous terrain at night, at altitudes exceeding
6,000 feet, is too risky to scramble rescue teams, officials said.
So they called them in the following morning.
“We had already flown a training mission and were sitting
in our out brief when the call came in,” said Capt. Zach
Guza, the aircraft commander for the mission. “For months, we
hadn’t received any calls and then (July 17) we received two.
It seems to work like that.”
The first rescue mission of the day for the 36th Rescue
Flight’s Airmen here pitted the UH-1N Huey helicopter crew
against thousand-foot sheer cliffs, hot temperatures and the high
altitudes of the unforgiving terrain.
“The hotter and windier the weather, the more dangerous
the mission,” Captain Guza said. “That day we were
blessed with low winds and beautiful, perfect weather.”
Although the crew had the blue sky to save lives, their No. 1
challenge was not smashing into the mountains of solid rock
surrounding the extraction point.
“The combination of timber and mountain peeks makes it
dangerous to fly and hover. These guys definitely have a dangerous
job, and they’re great at it,” Mr. Ellis said.
Arriving at the location of the father and son, the Airmen
dropped off a flight medic, Tech. Sgt. Brian Richie, for an initial
survey. At first glance, they saw a small, open grassy field that
looked like a tempting landing spot. But after picking up Sergeant
Richie everyone looked straight up to a spot high up the mountain.
That is where the father and son were.
“It was amazing terrain,” Captain Guza said.
“I’m not sure how they got up there.” Hovering 50
feet above the 50-degree slope on which they were stranded, the
rescue team hoisted the boy and his father to safety and moved them
to a concrete pad outside Leavenworth, Wash. An ambulance met them
there and took them to the nearest hospital.
The rescue team was back at it after a pit stop for fuel. They
easily found Mr. Ryan and two companions by following the GPS
coordinates they received via cell phone.
“We kept going up and up, looking at the coordinates and
kept going,” Captain Guza said. “We came to a high
mountain lake that had huge cliffs on one side and a mountain ridge
on the other -- it was beautiful.” The men were waiting for
the Airmen on the mountain ridge and soon heard the first whooping
of helicopter blades.
“It couldn’t have sounded any better,” Mr.
Ryan said. Once the Airmen saw the hikers, they determined the wind
direction and speed needed for the safest landing angle and
approach direction. Once on the ground, they loaded Mr. Ryan and
his gear and flew him to safety.
Although the small bird Mr. Ryan listened to earlier sounded
sweet, he said the 1969 helicopter that took him home sounded a lot
sweeter. [ANN Salutes Staff Sgt. Nathan Gallahan, 92nd Air
Refueling Wing Public Affairs]