LINVILLE — When the calls went out from Grandfather Mountain that an injured hiker needed to be medically evacuated from the area on May 26 and June 5, those calls went out to the North Carolina Helo-Aquatic Rescue Team in Salisbury.
Within the next 90 minutes of the first notification of a potential rescue, the N.C. HART team had mustered, taken off from Salisbury, flown to Charlotte to pick up civilian rescue technicians and made its way to Grandfather Mountain. Soon after, in both cases, the hiker was brought down to MacRae Meadows in the helicopter and taken to a local medical facility.
On June 5, the lead pilot was N.C. National Guard Chief Warrant Officer 4 Brandon King, stationed in Salisbury. King’s co-pilot was N.C. National Guard CWO3 Andy Whitten.
“We got a notification that there was a possible rescue on the mountain,” King said. “The biggest thing on that rescue was the weather. A lot of the clouds were forming on the west side, pulling moisture up off the side of the mountain and forming clouds. We had to maneuver the aircraft around the fog to get to the survivor. It was pretty tight on the side of the rocks.”
Before going to Grandfather Mountain, the Black Hawks traveled to Charlotte Douglas International Airport and picked up Charlotte firefighters, who are N.C. HART-certified rescue technicians.
After dropping the patients off in MacRae Meadows, the helicopters had to fly to an airport in Morganton to refuel, drop off the Charlotte firefighters and then ended up back at Salisbury. In both hiker rescue cases, the helicopters were UH-60 Black Hawks from the N.C. National Guard base in Salisbury.
“The rescue went very well without a hitch,” King said. “We have great coordination between N.C. Emergency Management and N.C. HART. We’ve got it down pat as far as communication between agencies.”
King said it was the first times N.C. HART has done helicopter rescues from Grandfather Mountain. Previously, King said he has done rescues in the Linville Gorge, including at night in 45 mph winds.
“Everything in the mountains is changing all the time,” King said. “Grandfather, Mount Mitchell and Linville Gorge are places that are unique because of their ever-changing weather patterns. Weather is always a factor.”
Prior to speaking to The Mountain Times on June 12, King said his crew had just got back from a mountain rescue in Asheville.
Formed in 2004 and one of the first helo-aquatic civilian and military rescue partnerships in the nation, the highly specialized team of rescuers consists of N.C. National Guard and N.C. State Highway Patrol aircraft and aircrews. Those crews are matched with N.C. Emergency Management and local first responders, forming a mission-ready package for helicopter based rescues.
“Basically, it’s a joint military and civilian program that partners aviation aspects and air crews that come from the N.C. National Guard or N.C. State Highway Patrol, with civilian rescue technicians that come from fire and rescue programs to perform air rescues when needed,” said Keith Acree, public information officer for the N.C. Department of Public Safety. “They’ve become a very relied upon rescue resource in our state.”
N.C. HART is available at the request of local emergency responders. In both cases at Grandfather Mountain, potential carry-outs would have taken upward of six hours due to the rugged terrain of the mountaintop trails, which includes ladders. N.C. HART standards require than any assistance request comes when a normal rescue would take longer than 3-4 hours.
Mountain rescues are one type of rescue that N.C. HART trains for, Acree said. Monthly training exercises have rescuers ready for high-angle, wilderness, urban and swiftwater/flood rescues. King said during Hurricane Florence in September 2018, N.C. HART performed numerous swiftwater rescues. King, who is the lead Black Hawk pilot with N.C. HART, coordinates the monthly training exercises with the roughly 20 N.C. HART certified rescuers.
“Having different agencies from Charlotte Fire Department, Asheville Fire Department, Transylvania County, NC Nationa Guard and N.C. Emergency Management overseeing this program for everyone to work so well together, its such a great asset as program has grown over the last 10-15 years,” King said. “The ability to respond to the N.C. mountains, the state doesn’t have this anywhere else.”
“N.C. HART is a tight family. I just want to say how proud I am to be a part of this group,” King added.
Acree said that currently, all N.C. HART certified personnel have all levels of mission types, going from Level 4 up to Level 1, the most complex missions at day or night.
“All of our N.C. HART crew members are required to be certified at all four levels (of mission types),” Acree said. “Only new members who have recently joined the team would be working their way up from one level to the next. We have not added any new members recently, so everyone currently on the team is certified through all four levels.
In total, a 1-2 hour N.C. HART rescue mission costs approximately $10,000, Acree said. The NCDPS absorbs the costs into its appropriated budget, Acree said, meaning the evacuee isn’t financially liable.
Other responding departments to the Grandfather Mountain rescues include Linville Central Rescue Squad, N.C. State Parks, Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation staff, Linville VFD, Crossnore VFD, Elk Park VFD, Banner Elk VFD and Blowing Rock Fire and Rescue.