June 4th ARES Training – Helicopter Landing Zone Exercise

EC Bob Willey conducts the on site briefing

Setting up a landing zone for a medical helicopter evacuation is harder than it appears at first glance.  You would think it would be simple:  find a open, flat field and tell the helicopter pilot where it is!  But it is so much more if every landing and takeoff is to be made safely.  The Centralia ARES team gathered, at our June 4th meeting, for its annual landing zone training, staging at the Mt. View Baptist Church to review the procedures from our field resource manuals, then it was out to one of our designated landing zones in the north end of the city.

We discussed how Airlift Northwest would be requested and talked about selecting the appropriate landing zone, knowing it might be a pre-established LZ, an open field, parking lot or even a roadway.  Once our communications van was placed, we moved on to preparing the landing area.  A 100′ x 100′ LZ was set up with orange cones at all four corners with two more indicating prevailing wind direction and placed flashing beacon lights on each cone.  Team members were then tasked with determining the latitude and longitude at the field’s center and conducting a group foreign object debris search of the landing area.  Each person prepared a written communications briefing for the pilot that would include wind direction, overhead obstructions, and landing zone description.

Requiring the most time, of course, was the safety briefing.  Helicopters are dangerous and working around them in any capacity requires knowing the safety rules.  We discussed eye and ear protection, proper clothing, where to stand and required each team member to have an escape plan in case of aircraft failure.  Knowing how to “wave-off” the helicopter if the landing zone becomes dangerous created more discussion.  Once the aircraft is on the ground, team members are not allowed to approach until the blades have stopped turning and the helicopter crew waves us in.  In fact, during a real evacuation, we may not approach the aircraft at all, leaving patient transfer to the aid crews.

While the ARES team would not be responsible for patient transfer or medical aid, we would be responsible for conducting a safe approach, landing and the later takeoff once the patient was on board.  This requires constant communications with the pilot, normally done on the Riverside Fire Authority’s Rednet or V-Tac-11 interoperability frequencies.  This evening we substituted an amateur radio simplex frequency for communications.  While each team member created his own pilot briefing, our two newest team members Jay, KI7WLI and John, KI7YEF, were selected to give the briefing, with the communications van substituting as an approaching aircraft.  Both did a great job.

After cleaning up the equipment and some final discussion, it was time to return the communications van and go home.  For our team, a hands on exercise is important.  The discussion over which way the wind was blowing was long and lively, and in the end we decided to call it “light and variable” to put an end to the arguments.  While this exercise was conducted on our easiest and simplest landing zone, next time it gets harder as we practice the landing zone procedures in the tight confines of the downtown area.

May 18th: 38th Anniversary of the Mt. St. Helens Eruption

May 18th is the 38 year anniversary of the Mt. St. Helens eruption. For those of us that lived and worked here, it was an amazing time. For some, when Mt. St. Helens erupted at 8:32am, time had run out.

Did you know that in addition to Dr. Dave Johnston who worked for the USGS – Johnston Ridge is named for him – there were also two ham radio operators on the mountain and lost their lives that morning? On a ridge two miles behind Dr. Johnston, Jerry Martin, W6TQF was also sitting watching the mountain for the Washington State Emergency Services. Jerry was a ARES/RACES officer and the state had asked for amateur radio volunteers. Also present on the mountain was Reid Blackburn, KA7AMF. Jerry and Reid went into the field to help the U.S. Geological Service and the National Geographic Society set up remote cameras in order to make scientific observations.

On May 18, 1980, Sunday, 8:32am, Mt. St. Helens erupted. Jerry was at his post 10 miles from the volcano using the tactical callsign “Coldwater 2”. He radioed in the emergency that the volcano had erupted. Jerry witnessed the devastation overwhelm Dave Johnston’s position and quickly radioed in the information. Jerry’s last words were “Gentlemen, the camper and car sitting to the south of me is covered. It’s gonna get me too. I can’t get out of here.” There was probably more but Jerry’s radio went dead at that moment.

Reid was a few miles closer to Mt. St. Helens than Jerry. No signal was ever received from him. Later that afternoon a helicopter found his car burning in several feet of smoldering volcanic ash. It was not safe to recover his body for three days.

With Jerry and Reid’s death, however, hams were not done. Dr. Johnston’s famous last words “Vancouver, Vancouver… This is it!” were never heard in Vancouver. Instead a ham radio operator monitoring the frequency recorded those last words. By the end of the operations hams had passed over 3,000 messages.

We do not normally think of ham radio as something one can die from. Jerry and Reid made the ultimate sacrifice by using ham radio to help. Let’s remember Jerry and Reid as we also remember the others who were lost when Mt. St. Helens erupted that day 38 years ago.

Centralia ARES Training In April 2018 QST

April 2018 QST

If you are a current ARRL member, you probably received your April 2018 issue of QST by now.  Included in this month’s issue is an article in the Public Service section, written by EC Bob Willey, about our August helicopter landing zone training exercise.  In fact, if you participated in that exercise, you are probably in the group photo next the Airlift Northwest helicopter.

The article encourages ARES teams to train on helicopter landing zone operations and describes how Centralia ARES went about doing exactly that.  All too often, ARES teams seem to restrict their training and exercises to simple and somewhat boring radio operations.  In a community like Centralia, our ARES team supports the City of Centralia’s Emergency Management Team as well as the Centralia Police Department and Riverside Fire Authority.  While we may not conduct helicopter operations on a regular basis, training ahead of time to conduct those operations seems important and prudent.  As the article goes on to say, even if teams are never asked to set up a landing zone or talk a helicopter onto the ground, the training alone is valuable to team spirit and radio familiarization.

Our thanks to Airlift Northwest and Riverside Fire Authority for their help and support during the training exercise outlines in this article.  Thanks too, to the ARRL staff that did a great job.