Despite tragedy, helicopters increasingly vital to rescues
As summer gets into full swing, it's prime time for search and rescues. Teams all over the state will be saving hikers, boaters, ATVers and tourists who suddenly realize they're over their heads in Utah's back country.
Deploying helicopters is quickly becoming the standard in search and rescue operations across the state in an effort to save lives, time and taxpayer resources.
But as the death of a Utah Highway Patrol trooper over the weekend showed, there's a risk factor even for those aboard helicopters swooping in to rescue victims.
Trooper Aaron Beesley, 34, fell to his death Saturday during the rescue of two teenage boys from the top of Mount Olympus. Beesley stayed behind on the mountain while the helicopter ferried the teens to safety. When the chopper returned for Beesley, the pilot saw he had fallen from a cliff. Beesley apparently lost his balance while trying to retrieve a pack of equipment.
"It just goes to show how dangerous search and rescue is," said Sgt. Eldon Packer with the Utah County Sheriff's Office. "People get in trouble and these guys put their lives on the line and save people every week."
But despite, Trooper Aaron Beesley's deadly fall off Mount Olympus on Saturday, authorities said the benefits of the helicopter program to search and rescue teams and victims far outweigh any potential pitfalls.
"Even though we've lost a wonderful person and a great man, the number of people it saves far outweighs that," said Lt. Lee Perry, a UHP trooper who is also a Utah legislator. "We'd have far greater numbers of people who would lose their lives in the back country" without the air support.
The state plans to forge ahead with its plan to install a $3.8 million helicopter in Cedar City, which will primarily serve search and rescue teams in the southern half of the state, effectively doubling UHP's helicopter fleet. The new helicopter is slated to become operational in January 2013, while a second helicopter will remain based out of Salt Lake City, said Capt. Luke Bowman, director of UHP's aviation and aero bureaus.
State statistics show that helicopters more and more often are playing a huge role in saving lives and getting people, like the two young hikers Beesley was helping rescue when he died, out of sticky situations.
"I think the capabilities of search and rescue have increased dramatically in the last 10 years, [and] part of that is relying on helicopters," said Lynn Nelson, Cache County sheriff and the chair of the state's Search and Rescue Advisory Board. "There are just so many variables that go with [search and rescues]. The helicopter just erases so many variables."
Last year, search and rescue teams were called out on 745 missions across the state of those, the UHP helicopter assisted in approximately 10 percent, according to search and rescue statistics compiled by state agencies.
"Even in light of this tragedy, the counties would just be at a real loss without that program," Nelson said.
The number of missions where the UHP helicopter is requested continues to increase steadily each year, Bowman said.
"They're vitally important," said Packer, who is with Utah County, which in 2011 conducted 98 search and rescue operations second only to Grand County's 111.
"They definitely save lives," Packer said. "They're like every other tool, they have their use. They only get used when you really need them because there is a factor of danger with them."
He said the spinning rotor blades combined with the tight spaces in the state's mountains and canyons can make flying dangerous, but "the function they provide to us is unmatched."
Helicopters are used to fly rescue teams closer to the victim's last known location, help pinpoint exactly where a stranded victim is and even used to remove patients from rough terrain.
"Sometimes when you're searching from the ground it's like looking for a needle in a haystack," Perry said. "That helicopter helps find that needle a lot faster."
With the addition of the new helicopter next year, Bowman said he expects that the number of missions and requests will continue to grow.
"There's a large number of things down there [in southern Utah] that they don't call us on because of the distance," Bowman said.
In addition, the state has entered into a partnership with the National Parks Service to fly personnel around as needed during missions, particularly at the extremely popular Zion National Park, which will increase the effectiveness in responding to those who need assistance, he said.
In Grand County, search missions abound
Number of search-and-rescue missions per county in 2011:
Box Elder 1
Salt Lake 46
San Juan 1