• Published
  • By Senior Airman Mary O'Dell
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs Office at Fairchild, AFB






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High up Saddle Mountain, Wash., deep in a remote area of Colville National Forest, a 26-year-old Airman's life hung in the balance.

Training to become a survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialist at Air Force Survival School, the Airman had tripped on the rugged terrain, fell over a log and struck his head on the ground with a sickening thud. He vomited and then became lethargic and confused. He had suffered a severe head injury and needed immediate airlift.

When Capt. Ashly Barnes, a 36th Rescue Flight standardization and evaluation liaison officer at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., got the call that Aug. 10 morn, she was both concerned and focused.

"It's a bittersweet business," said Barnes, an UH-1N Iroquois pilot, "because we never want to have to search for a missing person or medically evacuate an injured student, but that's what we're here for."

While the chopper pilot was concerned about the student's deteriorating condition, she also had other worries. Because of the 6,000-foot elevation, as well as the patient being surrounded by 100-foot trees, flight planners determined the risk for this mission to be high. The tricky terrain would prevent the helicopter crew from landing, so they would have to hover over the mishap site and extract the injured Airman by cable. Also, because of the mountain's high density altitude, the air density is reduced and causes unfavorable impact on aircraft performance, Barnes said. While en-route, the flight engineer calculated how much power would be required to execute the hoist based on weight and several other variables. The crew realized it would take 96 percent of the helicopter's power to hover over the student, meaning they would use 98 percent power for a dual pickup, Barnes said.

"This is less than ideal, and we would normally mitigate the risk by flying around to burn more fuel and increase our power margin," the pilot added. "However, due to the deteriorating condition of the student, we opted to continue in on the approach and execute the hoist."

Flying at maximum airspeed, the crew arrived on scene -- some 60 miles north of Fairchild -- within 20 minutes.

At the mishap site, Staff Sgts. Charles Mears and Jeffrey Tremel, 336th Training Support Squadron in-field independent medical technicians, had been tending to the injured student. Their medical assessment had determined that a ground evacuation would take too long.


In addition to the vomiting and state of confusion, the patient's pupils were slow to react, and his pulse and blood pressure were both abnormal, Mears said.

"Our main goal is to assist the patient as quickly and safely as possible," Mears added. "The last thing we wanted was for this student to get any worse."

So the medical technicians were more than relieved to hear the familiar whop, whop, whop of the approaching aircraft.

While many helicopter evacuations involve a stokes litter, allowing the patient to lie down while being lifted, Mears determined laying the student down could cause increased pressure inside his skull and further damage the brain.

Mears opted to be dually-hoisted into the helicopter with the student.

"When we initially picked up the medic and student, our 98-percent power required (for the extraction) continued to creep up because we lost the small amount of headwind we had and eventually got to the point where I was pulling 100 percent," Barnes said.

Hovering at 120 feet, nearly 20 feet above the treetops, the aircraft began to slowly descend. The student and medic were both still well below the treetops. Barnes didn't want to move them, but she also didn't want the helicopter to crash into the mountainside. So the pilot slowly maneuvered the helicopter forward, allowing it to pick up a couple of knots of airspeed, preventing any further descent.

"I had to go slow and maneuver carefully because the student and the medic were suspended over a narrow logging trail," Barnes said. "Any abrupt movement would have swung them into the trees on either side."

Once safely in the helicopter, Mears started intravenous therapy and monitored the student until arriving at a hospital in Colville, Wash., 10 minutes later. Doctors diagnosed the student with a severe concussion; but thanks to the quick actions of all involved, the Airman made a full recovery.

Happy to have saved a life, as well as keeping her crew and aircraft safe and sound, Barnes reflected on the rescue effort.

"From this mission, I learned to always have an escape plan," said the Minnesota native. "As a crew, we discussed what could go wrong during the hoist and how we would correct it before we came in to execute. We were able to prevent a bad situation from becoming a worse one."

For her actions that day, Barnes earned the 2012 Air Education and Training Command Aviator Valor Award, which was announced in December. The award is presented each year to a rated Air Force officer for a "conspicuous act of valor or courage performed during aerial flight during either combat or noncombat." She was credited with protecting the $4-million aircraft, three aircrew members and two military personnel from harm, while helping to save the life of the injured member, according to the award citation.

"I am honored to win this award, but every mission our unit accomplishes is a team effort," said Barnes, an Air Force Academy graduate. "In my eyes, the entire rescue flight and 336th Training Group won this award."

The 26-year-old was surprised she won the prestigious honor, but her commander wasn't.

"Captain Barnes' determination and hard work enabled her to upgrade from a co-pilot to an instructor pilot within a single year," said Maj. Matthew Johnson, the 36th RQF commander. "Such a feat is rarely accomplished and then only by the best of pilots."