Helicopter search for victim falling through ice
helicopter search over Irondequoit bay, NY.
In the winter of 2003, I was doing Night Vision Google (NVG) refresher training on Leroy W* in a UH-1H. As soon as we took off we got a call from the Rochester Tower asking if we could help first responders search Irondequoit bay. The tower had explained that 911 had just received a call reporting that someone had fallen through the thin ice just moments ago. This was before the enhanced 911 feature that gave the 911 operator the location of the caller, even if it were with a cell phone. Since the fire department did not have any idea where to begin the search, they called the Rochester Airport looking for the National Guard to help. The search area was too large for a ground search to be effective within the time limits of someone surviving being submerged in ice cold water. There was not enough time to launch a state police helicopter from Batavia 25 miles away or from Syracuse 50 miles away. There was a helicopter EMS operation that was 10 miles away, but EMS operations usually turn down searches until they can verify they have someone to bill. Since we were just launching our flight and there was another NVG flight that just launches a few minutes ahead of us, we were asked to assist.
In our aircraft was Leroy W* as the copilot and Hal F* as the crew chief and myslef. Leroy was one of the pilots who for one reason or another had never been signed off as a "pilot in command." This title meant that you have proven to the leadership that you had the judgement to command the aircraft with the crew. Leroy was honest and a good person but he had a tendency to follow directions without ever showing initiative to think beyond what he was directed to do. With the constantly changing environment of aviation, it is often necessary to deviate from the plan.
There was another National Guard helicopter flying in the area and Air Traffic Control (ATC) contacted them and briefed them on the situation. The other aircraft was piloted by Dave C*, Bob M* and their crew chief was Danny K*. They called us on our internal FM radio to set up the search parameters. Irondequoit had a bridge that stood approximately 100 foot above the water and separated the bay in two even halves. Dave briefed that his aircraft would search the north half of the bay and we would search the southern half. Dave had suggested a hard deck of 600 feet on the altimeter for the search, which would keep us 200 feet above the surface and 100 feet above the bridge. I agreed that this was a good idea and we turned to the bay to start the search.
Leroy and I began our search around the perimeter of the ice, looking for holes in the ice or people gathered. As we searched, Rochester tower called us and gave us the phone number for the West Webster fire chief who was in charge of the search. The radios in the aircraft were not compatible with law enforcement or firefighter's radios, so our only means of coordinating the search was by cell phone. Hal had a cell phone on him and was able to dial the number and put the phone under his helmet to talk to the fire chief. Hal would relay requests from the fire chief for us to look in certain areas and if it applied to the search area of the other aircraft, we would relay the message to the other aircraft on our FM radio.
We were searching an area on the south side of the bay bridge and on the eastern shore of the bay. In this area there is an island that was only about 200 yards away from the shoreline. The terrain on the shoreline rose up about 100 feet in a steep cliff and the island also had a hill that was about 75 feet tall. As the search wore on, I gave the flight controls to Leroy while I focused on radio work. I was getting caught up in the process of Hal listening to the instructions from the fire chief on the ground and then he would relay the message to me over the aircraft intercom and then I would relay the message over the radio to the other aircraft searching the Northern area. During this process I had not noticed that Leroy had allowed the aircraft to descend below the "hard deck" that Dave had briefed earlier. As we were maneuvering between the island and the shoreline, it had occurred to me how low we were. I was about to direct Leroy to climb when I spotted a wire that was suspended from the highest point of the island to the cliffs of the nearby shoreline. I announced "wires" and came on the controls. We were almost completely under the wires. I am sure that if we had continued forward, the tail rotor would have hit the wire. I slowly backed the aircraft up with Hal hanging his head outside the sliding door, watching the wire to ensure the rotor tilting upward had enough clearance for us to move away. This scared us back above the hard deck of 100 feet as we continued the search.
After we had been searching for about an hour, the Rochester Tower advised us that there was a storm with freezing rain approaching the airport from the west. They recommended that we return as quickly as possible to the airport to avoid being caught in the storm. The airport was only 5 miles west of the bay, so both aircraft started back to the airfield. We encountered the rain about three miles away and it would immediately stick to the aircraft. We moved quickly across the airport to parking and landed. As the blades were spinning to a stop, ice had covered the entire aircraft. We had to chip away at the ice to get the doors to open. If we had waited just a minute or two longer to head back, we may not have gotten on the ground safely.
After the aircraft were secured and we were debriefing the flight, Lt Col Chris H* said that we should have turned the search request down. He explained that there is a protocol in place for receiving off the cuff missions like this and he felt that we hadn't follow it. Dave reminded Col that we have there is also a clause in that protocol that gives us the authority to launch to protect "Life, limb or eyesight." Dave added that if it ever happens again and if we knew it was Col H*'s kid, we would be sure to turn it down.
We never found any evidence of someone falling through the ice, and we heard that the firefighters on the ground never did either. The think the call was a prank, as that happens from time to time.