War Buildup Means Fewer Rescue Helicopters

The military buildup for a possible attack on Iraq could affect rescue missions at the over 14,000-foot Mount Rainier in Washington state.

The large, twin-rotor Chinook helicopters used for high-altitude rescue missions on the snow-capped mountain have been mobilized for reserve duty. They have not yet left, but when they do, there will be fewer crew members and less machinery to come to the rescue.

"We'll just have to do it the old-fashioned way — go up the mountain, find them and carry them down" to a lower altitude where other aircraft can pick them up, said a Mount Rainier spokesman.

Established in 1899, Mount Rainier National Park consists of 235,625 acres, 97 percent of which is designated wilderness. The land includes Mount Rainier, which is a 14,410-foot active volcano encased in over 35 square miles of snow and ice.

Mountain climbing is a popular activity in the region. In each of the last several years, approximately 10,000 people have tried to climb Mount Rainier. Over the last five years, about 52 percent have been successful.

Mount Rainier National Park spent over $150,000 on mountain-related search, rescue and recovery in 1999. Many of these costs were related to extensive searches for lost mountaineers on the route to Camp Muir, the mountain’s most popular high camp and considered the "Bermuda Triangle" of mountains.

Army Reserve Chinook Units have been used for missions when climbers need to be rescued from above 10,000 feet on Mount Rainier. They are kept at nearby Fort Lewis, the Army's 87,000 acre installation that is one of the largest and most modern military reservations in the country.

Fort Lewis, home of I Corps, the most decorated corps in the active Army, has an agreement with the National Park Service to work with park rangers on rescues.

The Chinooks are valuable for rescue missions because few other aircraft can go above 10,000 feet. These aircraft can fit more people than traditional helicopters and have the fuel capacity needed to fly that high. Plus, the rescue missions give military personnel valuable training in rescue operations.

"It's a dangerous mountain," said Bill Petersen, coordinator for Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic in Washington state. He said people aiming to Climb Mount Everest and McKinley often train on Mount Rainer, but it gets a lot of bad weather, which makes things tricky. He estimated that about five to six people are rescued from Mount Rainier each year.

But the Chinooks "make it easier to get up to the high altitudes and rescue those people, and get them en route to the hospital as quickly as possible," Peterson said.

Although there was some concern that with the military call-up, the Chinooks would be deployed for duty and there would be no efficient way for high-altitude rescue missions, the Army says at least one will be left behind.

"They've been in constant coordination and contact with the National Park Service," said Lt. Col. Boyd Collins, spokesman for the U.S. Army Reserves. "Even though they're deployed, they're going to leave behind one aircraft with some personnel."

But "it will be at a reduced level, of course," with only four to five people on hand capable of operating the aircraft, he said.

The National Guard unit at Fort Lewis does have other aircraft such as Black Hawks and Hueys available, Collins said, but they haven't performed those types of rescue missions and pilots aren't trained. Extensive training is needed for rescue missions, and the National Park Service doesn't want to train a whole new unit because "there's a big learning curve there," Collins said.

Although there was a rumor that Washington was going to try to borrow some helicopter units capable of high-altitude missions from California or Wisconsin, Peterson said, "nothing has been substantiated on any of that."

Peterson said there's an air ambulance unit in Salem, Ore., that has UH60 Black Hawks that can operate up to 14,000 feet. There are other low-altitude aviation assets nearby that are under the jurisdiction of the Navy and Coast Guard, he said.

Peterson, who deals primarily with ambulance-type rescue missions under 7,000 feet, said one option may be to somehow get hikers in danger down to lower altitudes where other aircraft are capable of picking them up.

The Army National Guard exists in all 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia and the states are in charge of the units. Governors reserve the ability to call up members of the National Guard in time of domestic emergencies or need.

National Guard units battle fires or help communities deal with floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, snowstorms, rescue operations or other emergency situations. In 2001, 34,855 guardsmen were called to duty in response to the needs of their community or state.

The principal Fort Lewis maneuver units are the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division and the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. It is also home to the 593rd Corps Support Group, the 555th Engineer Group, the 1st MP Brigade (Provisional), the I Corps NCO Academy, Headquarters, Fourth ROTC Region, the 1st Personnel Support Group, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), 2nd Battalion (Ranger), 75th Infantry and Headquarters, 5th Army (West).

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