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Mountain Rescue in North Carolina

Guard aviation crew teams with civilian responders to save three hikers at 4,100 feet
A North Carolina National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter lands at Asheville Regional Airport after rescuing three stranded hikers. Photo by SFC Robert Jordan
A North Carolina National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter lands at Asheville Regional Airport after rescuing three stranded hikers. Photo by SFC Robert Jordan

ASHEVILLE, NC “Always Ready, Always There” is more than the National Guard’s motto. It was a mission last Friday when three hikers became stranded in the North Carolina mountains.

Members of the U.S. Forest Service located the hikers near the North Carolina–Tennessee border. The hikers endured life-threatening conditions the night before: 4 to 6 inches of snow, wind gusts more than 30 mph and 2-foot snowdrifts at an elevation of 4,100 feet.

With the hikers suffering hypothermia and dehydration, North Carolina Emergency Management called out its Helicopter and Aquatic Rescue Team (NCHART), the team that pairs North Carolina Guard aviation crewmembers with civilian first responders.

“It is pretty rugged terrain, and evacuation by ground was not possible without risk to life and limb,” says Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jeff Gordon with the North Carolina Guard’s C Company, 1/131st Assault Helicopter Battalion.

Soldiers at the North Carolina National Guard Flight Facility Two in Salisbury, NC, prepared for the mission at 7:20 a.m. Aviation support personnel loaded the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter with fuel and rescue equipment as North Carolina Guard leaders planned the mission and assembled a flight crew.

Gordon was recalled from leave at his home in nearby Mocksville, NC. He joined Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Tom Underwood; Army Staff Sergeant Todd Bowers with the battalion; Army Command Sergeant Major Gary Hamm of the North Carolina Guard’s 449th Theater Aviation Brigade; and two first responders from the Charlotte Fire Department.

They departed for Asheville Regional Airport at 10:30 a.m. to refuel and pick up a Transylvania County first responder. The crew got directions and updates on the hikers’ condition via Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders (VIPER) radio.

“We kept in contact with emergency management throughout the flight and made contact with the guys on the ground,” says Gordon.

They arrived on-site in the mountains about 12:20 p.m. The 63-foot-long helicopter hovered near the evacuation site using the rotor wash to blow debris and snow away before the rescuers arrived on foot. The civilian first responders were lowered down to the site to retrieve the hikers by hoist, a thin metal cable winch on the side of the helicopter’s cargo area.

“It is advanced problem-solving. Something needs to get done, and then they figure it out,” Gordon says.

With the hikers aboard, they flew to Asheville Regional Airport to waiting ambulances from Mission Hospital.

This is the first NCHART mission in 2014, but the team has flown many rescue missions in the area.

“It has become routine and uneventful, and that is a good thing. I [have] never been on a mission more difficult than our training,” Gordon says.

NCHART also executes missions involving swift water/flood rescues, lost persons and urban/wilderness high-angle rescues.