Rescue copter needs rescuing

Posted: Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Alaska State Troopers’ main rescue helicopter, Helo 1, is being assessed in Kenai for repairs or possible replacement after the aircraft was damaged in a rescue mission for a missing Anchorage man.

Thursday morning Helo 1 was dispatched from Anchorage to Soldotna to pick up a trooper and then flew across Cook Inlet to a Big River Lakes cabin, where Scott Gilkeson, 35, of Anchorage, had last been heard from April 16 by phone.

Gilkeson was not at the cabin and the three rescuers who arrived in the helicopter reboarded it. But as Helo 1 attempted to leave the cabin, it experienced difficulties and struck its tail rotor on the ground.

The pilot, Alaska Mountain Rescue Group member and trooper on board were not injured and all three spent the night at the cabin. Gilkeson, who had been hired to give weather reports from the cabin, was found Friday after he hiked 19 miles from the cabin to the Trading Bay Forest Oil tank farm, but Helo 1 was unable to leave without assistance.

Mechanics were flown to the scene, but the helicopter could not be repaired and had to be airlifted in a sling by Evergreen Helicopter from the cabin to Kenai.

“We will probably be without our number one helicopter for some time,” said trooper spokesperson Tim DeSpain.

Troopers still have three Robinson 44 helicopters that can be used for rescue missions, but their flight performances and carrying capacities are far lower than Helo 1, said Lt. Craig Macdonald, a trooper and search and rescue coordinator.

Helo 1, for example, can carry four passengers and two canines, whereas a Robinson 44 can only carry two passengers.

In addition, the lighting, weather and altitude are greater barriers to rescues made with Robinson 44 helicopters than with the Helo 1, an A-Star helicopter.

“We’re a lot more limited in when it can be used and where,” Macdonald said of the Robinson 44.

Without Helo 1, rescue missions will rely more heavily on the Rescue Coordination Center. But while the coordination center has aircraft that can outperform Helo 1, that does not mean they will always be able to help.

“Availability is the question,” Macdonald said. “The Rescue Coordination Center’s principal function is to be there for the active duty military.”

In the meantime, the state will have to determine whether it wants to repair Helo 1 or replace it based on insurance assessments.

DeSpain said insurers had not yet determined whether the helicopter would have to be replaced or could be repaired.

“Until they assess it, we don’t know which way it will go,” DeSpain said.

Helo 1 will only be repaired if the helicopter’s safety can be fully restored, he said.

“It’s not something we can repair on the side of the road.”

“Not having (Helo 1) will certainly be a setback,” DeSpain said. “We’ll be limited for awhile.”

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