It was an unusual report that swiftly sent the Grand Canyon National Park Helitack–this year’s winner of the Igor I. Sikorsky Humanitarian Service Award–into action last August 17. “In the early morning we got a report that there were five boats floating down river with no passengers on board,” said Jay Lusher, helicopter program manager for Grand Canyon National Park. “All of the life vests and gear and everything were still onboard the boats.” The drifting rafts were corralled by a Colorado River Canyon tour operator who used a satellite phone to alert authorities.
Based within the park, on the canyon’s south rim, the helitack unit–which stands for helicopter initial attack–provides aerial search and rescue, medevac, fire management and logistical support to the one million acres of the canyon area.
Grand Canyon Helitack flies an MD 900 provided by operator Papillion Helicopters on a 365-day-a-year contract, which includes three pilots, maintenance and ground support. A second helicopter and crew is available during the park’s peak season from May through July.
“The search-and-rescue shift supervisor notified the helitack crew, we began planning and went out and started a search mission of the river, looking for the passengers of those boats,” said Lusher. “We located them after searching about 15 river miles. They were all in good condition, but they were in a place where they weren’t able to access good shoreline where they could get on another boat or we could get to them via helicopter,” he said.
The group of 16 tourists and river guides returned from a day hike and found their rafts and equipment had been swept away by a flood tide churning down Havasu Creek, a tributary to the Colorado River, which usually runs at a depth of four feet during the summer. Recent heavy rains caused it to surge to nearly 25 feet, and reports called for it to rise even further. By the time the raft passengers were located, they had been exposed to the elements for more than 24 hours with no food or potable water, and with no shelter from what would be another more than 100-degree day at the bottom of the gorge.
After surveying the situation, the helitack unit decided to use short-haul techniques to move the stranded rafters across Havasu Creek. With a 150-foot fixed line fastened to the helicopter, the rafting group was moved two at a time using sit harnesses. “It’s not just hovering and picking folks up with the hoist, the pilot is actually moving the people on the end of a long line from one precision point to the next,” said Lusher. “It’s a tight canyon in the lower gorge of the Colorado River so there’s not a lot of room and it’s difficult for a pilot to be able to pick up somebody while the water is moving right next to it. They kind of get a little bit disoriented, so it takes a lot of skill for our pilots to be able to accomplish that mission right along the moving water.”
From the time the rafters were found until they were all carried to a road where a bus could reunite them with their rafts and belongings, the mission took a total of three and a half hours.
In addition to search-and-rescue duties, during the off season, Grand Canyon Helitack supports the park’s infrastructure, carrying more than 2,500 workers and around a half million pounds of cargo each year down into the canyon where mules are still the main mode of transport.
“It just says Grand Canyon Helitack on the award, but to us it includes our vendor and all the people who work for them and all the people who work for the National Park Service,” said Lusher. “Even though, on paper, one is the government and one is the private contractor, we see ourselves as one giant crew that works together to accomplish all the missions we have.”