• Published
  • By Col. STEVEN A. ESTOCK, as told to Tim Barela
  • 56th Rescue Squadron at Keflavik Naval Air Station, Iceland
Fifteen years after it happened, an amazing rescue of three Icelandic men trapped in a blizzard still stands out in the helicopter pilot's memory.

With furious 60 mph winds blowing snow so hard that they would choke on it when they opened their mouths to talk or breath, the three Icelandic hikers knew they were in serious trouble.

They had set out on an adventure in the Icelandic interior to retrace the steps one man's grandfather had taken some 70 years earlier.

While traveling between two ominous glaciers, a violent blizzard hit and quickly buried or blew away all of their supplies and equipment. They attempted to build a snow shelter, but it collapsed under the weight of the rapidly growing snowdrifts. They tried to hollow out shallow indentions atop the snow to rest in and escape the wind. But as they lay in them, their clothes froze to the ground and the holes filled so fast it was as if they'd dug their own graves.

Forced to keep moving, they had to hope beyond hope that someone would find and rescue them from this white fury before it was too late.

When the Icelandic Coast Guard asked the Air Force for help rescuing three men stranded in a blizzard in the rugged Icelandic interior, I knew we were in for an interesting day. We were on the alert crew with the 56th Rescue Squadron at Keflavik Naval Air Station, Iceland.

We'd be going after them.

The path of the three Icelandic men took them between two glaciers. The glaciers are so large and so cold, they tend to make their own weather. They create cloud cover at elevations that don't exist elsewhere. Gale force winds form and flow down between them. Snowstorms develop and build at a moment's notice. As the men traveled between these two giant blocks of ice, they basically got caught up in a major storm consisting of all three of these phenomena. They lost all their supplies and gear and quickly realized their lives were in danger.

They still had an emergency locator beacon to send out a distress signal. However, the bulb was burned out on it, so they didn't know if it was working.

They wanted to stay in one place, but the snow came so fast and furiously that they would have been buried alive. So they had to keep walking.

Unbeknownst to them, the beacon worked and Icelandic rescue forces tried to get to these guys in trucks and snowmobiles. But high snowdrifts and nasty weather blocked their path. The one helicopter the Icelandic Coast Guard had available was down for maintenance. They did have a fixed-wing aircraft they used for search and rescue, so they launched it. This plane flew over the cloud cover searching for the hikers.
Periodically there'd be a break in the clouds where they could actually look down through the weather, and they eventually were able to spot the trapped men. But they couldn't land to save them.

That's when we stepped up to the plate.

Back at Keflavik, we got notified of the rescue mission. We had a good, well-trained crew to man the HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter and respond to the emergency: Capt. John Blumentritt, copilot; Master Sgt. Clinton Coleman, flight engineer; and Master Sgt. Paul Pepin and Staff Sgt. William Peterson, pararescuemen. I served as the aircraft commander -- my first such mission in that role.

Interestingly enough, I was originally scheduled to be the copilot for the mission. Captain Blumentritt, the most experienced pilot, was given the short-notice tasking to fill the aircraft commander position. But because he had been put on the flight at the last minute, he made the unselfish decision to recommend that I act as the aircraft commander. That was a great lesson in officership.

With high winds, low cloud cover and blowing snow at the scene, coupled with the rocky Icelandic terrain, the only way this mission could have been worse was if it were at night.

As we took off, the first task was to try to figure out exactly where these guys were in the interior of the island.

Because a mountain range stood between us and the search plane circling above the Icelandic hikers, we had broken and sporadic communications with the Coast Guard pilot. Thankfully, we were able to use a Scandinavian airliner as a communications relay platform. So the Icelandic aircrew that was soaring over the scene and had the three survivors in their sights talked to the Scandinavian airline pilot, who relayed their coordinates to our crew in the helicopter.

After we cleared the mountain range, we had to figure out how to proceed through the storm.

Were we going to stay on top of the weather where we knew it was clear and increase our safety, then descend when we reached the scene? The danger in that was we get over the survivors but the weather's so bad we can't get down through it. Then we lose valuable time that may cost the men their lives.

The other option was flying in a small area under the icy clouds and above the worst of the driving snow. The hazard there was the weather getting worse and the cloud cover dropping, essentially trapping us in a whiteout. Spatial disorientation close to terrain is the last thing we wanted to face.

Nevertheless, we weighed the risks and decided to stay under the cloud cover and fly directly to the survivors.

About 25 miles out from the stranded men, we got into what could be described as the inside of a pingpong ball. Blowing snow had climbed the rising terrain on either side of us until it blended with the clouds and engulfed us in a sea of white. This forced us to fly 70 feet above the ground and slower than normal to maintain visual awareness with the landscape.

Even though it was daylight, the storm and cloud conditions made it harder and harder to see. So we searched for rocky outcroppings jutting up from the snow.

We bounced from rock to rock, picking our way through the whiteout.

Basically, we would use these references along our flight path to give us spatial awareness and confidence that we were not going to crash the helicopter.

As we pressed on, we closed the distance to the survivors. By the time we reached the "half-mile out" point, everybody was "eyes out," hunting for the victims.

I began to think there was no way we'd find them with this wall of blowing snow burying everything in its path. But suddenly the flight engineer yelled, "Survivors at three o'clock!"

We landed right behind the Icelanders, but the wind was howling so loudly that they couldn't hear our 10-ton aircraft. In fact, they continued to walk away from us toward an almost certain death.

So we sent the PJs out into the chaos. Trudging through the ever-deepening snow, our teammates had to fight through the 60 mph winds and stinging snow to chase down the nearly frozen men. You can just imagine their surprise, relief and joy when our PJs caught up to them, tapped them on the shoulders and hollered, "Want a ride?"

The survivors were too exhausted to form an audible answer over the roaring wind. But their broad smiles, which cracked some of the ice and snow that had collected on their beards and eyebrows, needed no translation.

Meanwhile, with each passing second, our aircraft was rapidly icing up and being buried by snow. So the PJs dragged the men to the helicopter and hurriedly loaded them up. Then we got out of there as fast as we could safely fly.

We were able to take the grateful, though cold and weary, adventurers to Reykjavik, where we handed them over to the Icelandic Coast Guard.

To save those lives the crew had to work well together, and everybody had to do their part. No single person was the star -- it was the teamwork that shined.

When the U.S. defense force members tapped the stranded Icelandic men on the shoulders, at first the frosty trio couldn't believe their eyes. They had accepted that they were probably on their death march and wouldn't last much longer in the relentless elements.

Then a gift from above drops in and changes everything.

Assisted by the PJs, the hikers struggle to the helicopter and experience a joy they'd never felt before. To a man, they were now able to appreciate a gift they'd taken for granted most of their existence. ... They'd live to see another sunrise.