ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A sudden, dangerous whiteout in the mountains north of Girdwood forced the crew of an Army National Guard helicopter to drop a 3-ton snow groomer being flown to a ski training center on Eagle Glacier.
The four-member crew was unhurt and landed safely. But the $32,000 snow cat plunged about 140 feet to the glacier and appeared to be seriously crunched if not totaled.
''It's very badly beat up. Some of the wheels are broken off, and the cab is virtually demolished,'' said Jim Galanes, head coach of Alaska Pacific University's Nordic Ski Center. ''But whatever happened, whatever went wrong, (the pilot) did the right thing. I have no qualms about that at all.''
The UH-60L Black Hawk was hauling the groomer from the Girdwood airport to APU's Thomas Training Center, using a 50-foot sling hoist it for the 10-minute, 10-mile run when dense fog closed in. The fog forced the crew to make an emergency climb, according to pilot Chief Warrant Officer Terry Rollie.
Within seconds, the rotor began to strain and warnings signaled the aircraft was too high for its payload and was at risk of crashing.
''It was like flying inside a ping-pong ball,'' Rollie said. ''There were lots of (lights) on the board, and they were all bad. There really was only one decision to make, and that was to let it go.''
The National Guard will investigate, but Rollie and his crew appear to have reacted correctly, said Lt. Col. Jerry Kidrick, Rollie's commander at the 207th Aviation Battalion of the Alaska guard.
''There has already been a consensus that Mr. Rollie performed the right emergency action for this situation,'' Kidrick said.
The Guard plans to return to the site as soon as possible and recover the wreckage, Kidrick said.
Over the past two years, the glacier center has evolved into the premier site for summer training by world-class skiers, attracting U.S. Olympic cross-country skiers last year, Galanes said. Without a working groomer, the staff cannot set ski tracks.
It's unclear what APU will do next or whether the loss of the groomer will be covered by insurance, said university spokeswoman Sandra Guthrie.
''While we're disappointed with loss of the groomer,'' she said, ''we are very grateful that no one was hurt.''
APU bought the groomer from the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage. The National Guard offered to haul it to Eagle Glacier and retrieve an old groomer as a public service last fall, but the project was delayed until this week by tightened security after the terrorist attacks.
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