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Daring Fire Rescue Shows Chinook’s Power in Action

Daring Fire Rescue Shows Chinook’s Power in Action

For Chief Warrant Officer 5 Joe Rosamond, flying a CH-47 Chinook is all about “moving stuff—people, cargo, supplies or whatever—sometimes under extremely challenging high, hot, dark and dusty conditions.” He and his crew tested their Chinook’s limits in September 2020 during what Rosamond calls “the most dangerous and risky thing I’ve ever gotten myself into.”

Wildfires are nothing new for the 25-year veteran who flies with the California National Guard out of the Stockton Army Aviation Support Center in California’s Central Valley. Even so, he and his crew were not fully prepared for the challenge they would face that Labor Day weekend. Rosamond was relaxing at home when a call from headquarters came in at about 4:30 Saturday afternoon. He was out the door in minutes, headed to the base to meet his crew.

Soon, the helicopter was airborne and bound for Mammoth Lake Reservoir in the Sierra National Forest, northeast of Fresno, where the fast-moving Creek Fire had blocked all exit routes for some vacationing campers. Initial reports said the fire had stranded about 30 people, which would be an easy load for the CH-47, the Army’s largest helicopter.

Another helicopter, a UH-60 Black Hawk, was also dispatched to help with the rescue. Flying to the scene, the pilots received updates until the final estimate of stranded campers was reported to be around 200 people, which also turned out to be an underestimation. Before the mission was complete, 242 people and 27 animals would be evacuated by the two helicopters, each making three round-trip flights over the course of 10 hours.

It was dusk by the time the helicopters arrived on the scene, but they were unable to land right away because tankers were still using the airspace to fight the fire. When they were finally cleared to land, they had a tough time finding a good landing spot, Rosamond told Aviation International News.

“We started getting a whole lot of grid coordinates and latitude-longitudes that didn’t make sense,” he said. “They [law enforcement and fire officials on the ground] just didn’t know. There wasn’t a whole lot of information shared.”

Soon the crew spotted some unusual flashing lights among all the flickering flames, which turned out to be a pickup truck’s emergency flashers. Using their night-vision goggles, the crew was able to locate the best-available landing zone, which was on a boat ramp nearly surrounded by flames.

“We approached the boat ramp, and we browned out from the sand,” Rosamond said in an interview with Aerial Fire magazine. “We ended up landing on that thing with a 13-degree upslope and got it kind of squirrely for a second... We started rolling back a little bit, so we had to bring it back up, reset the brakes and try it again. But by that time, we had blown a lot of the sand away. We had visual again, so we finished the landing, and then I just told the guys, okay, start loading them up...get as many people as you can.”

About 65 people piled onto the Chinook, assisted by crewmembers Sgt. Cameron Powell and Sgt. George Esquivel, for the first flight to Fresno. Rosamond radioed ahead for medical assistance.  Many of the passengers were soaked from standing in the water waiting for rescue. Others had severe burns, broken bones and other injuries. After arriving at Fresno, they shut down, offloaded, briefed, refueled and headed back to pick up more campers.

 

 

The second flight tested the limits of human and machine as the crew first packed 75 to 85 campers in the Chinook and then—rather than separating families—squeezed in some more. It wasn’t until the flight landed in Fresno that the crew realized they’d carried 102 people in a single flight.

 “With that many people onboard, we found ourselves heavier than we expected to be,” Rosamond said. “The conditions were hot, heavy, dark and, in this case, smoky. I knew we were operating the aircraft near its limits or just a little higher than recommended.”

Rosamond and copilot CWO 2 Brady Hlebain coaxed the maximum performance out of their aircraft’s T55-714A engines, which are produced by Honeywell. “The temperature ranges of these engines are pretty enormous, and as long as you stay within those limits, I’ve never had an engine fail or even hiccup,” Rosamond said. “They’re super-reliable engines, which breeds a lot of confidence.”

The T55-714A is the current production family of T55 turboshaft engines that have powered every Chinook flight since the first one in 1961. A new version, the T55-714C, which is more powerful and fuel efficient, is designed to meet the Chinook’s future requirements for decades to come.

“When we do firefighting every year, we’re using the helicopter to its max,” Rosamond said. “These Honeywell engines have never let me down or left me in a position where I couldn’t carry what I needed to carry.”

A few weeks after their heroic mission, crews of both helicopters were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in a formal ceremony attended by then-President Donald Trump and California Gov. Gavin Newsom. “it was great to be recognized, but we were just doing our jobs,” Rosamond told Aerial Fire magazine. “There were people down there who needed our help. We all joined this role to help people, so that’s what we did ... we had to get these people out safely.”

 

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