The Naval Test Wing Pacific commander presented Air Medals to members of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 31 for a recent search and rescue (SAR) mission in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains during a ceremony April 2 at Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division China Lake.
The rescue mission was significant because at 11,300 feet elevation, the density altitude was at the maximum allowed for the aircraft by NATOPS and it was the highest elevation rescue mission that VX-31’s Dust Devils have conducted. It was also the first mission in the squadron’s newly acquired MH-60S helicopter.
Lt. Cmdr. Ken Gilbert, Lt. Neal Barham, AWS1 Anthony Michalski, AWS2 Erik Potter and HM2 Benjamin Hernandez made up the SAR crew for the mission. Hernandez was unavailable for the ceremony as he has transferred to the Blue Angels, the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron. Lt. Randy Geiger and Lt. Jeff Hollowell, representing the Inyo County Sheriff's Office, were also in attendance.
Gilbert recounted the rescue mission that began in Hume Lake, Calif., where he and the crew were attending a California Emergency Management Conference. The request for support came at about 6 p.m. from the Inyo County Sherriff’s Office. A horseman had fallen in a remote location at Cottonwood Pass, near Horseshoe Meadow about 15 miles west of Olancha, Calif. He was severely injured and needed to get to a hospital.
The VX-31 crew responded immediately and had its new MH-60S helicopter in the air within 25 minutes, climbing over the mountains toward the scene just as the sun was beginning to set. At a density altitude of 12,800 feet and in thin mountain air, the landing zone was on the very edge of the MH-60’s maximum operating altitude.
The rescue crewmen realized that human performance is also impacted by higher elevations. They discovered that traveling on foot was extremely taxing, especially when loaded down with emergency medical gear weighing upward of 60 pounds in mountainous terrain. After the rescue team reached the injured man, they assessed his injuries, placed a C-collar on him and carried him by stretcher more than 100 yards to the aircraft.
Once the survivor was loaded, Rescue 463 lifted off and headed back to China Lake, where the China Lake Fire Department arranged an ambulance for transport to the Ridgecrest Regional Hospital.
“It was the most challenging flight I’ve ever done,” Gilbert said. “It was quite a feat for the crew. It took every one of us to make it happen.”
“This is not a common occurrence,” said Capt. Paul Sohl, Naval Test Wing Pacific commander, of the Air Medal presentation. “It was an unbelievable performance by the crew. Everybody did their part.”
The Air Medal was created in 1942, and is awarded for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.
As the mission commander, Gilbert was recognized for his “superior airmanship and leadership in the face of hazardous flying conditions.” The impending sunset, high altitude, and rocky terrain made for challenging conditions. Gilbert “superbly piloted the helicopter to minimize delay and arrived at the scene within 55 minutes,” read his citation. “His precise power management and airmanship enabled the helicopter to hover, maneuver over sloped terrain, and land.”
Barham was honored for providing timely and critical navigation information en route which minimized delay and enabled arrival prior to sunset as well as his skill in piloting the aircraft off the mountain at night with the added weight of the survivor. His award noted his “sound crew coordination, navigation and airmanship.”
Potter and Michalski were recognized for their efforts in preparing the cabin and rescue equipment for recovery operations, assessing ground conditions on approach and departure, and precise verbal coordination about the landing zone which enabled Gilbert to safely approach, hover and maneuver over sloped terrain and land.
Hernandez was honored for providing his expeditious on-site physical assessment of the victim, recommendation for immediate evacuation due to his deteriorating medical condition and his continued treatment of the patient en route back to China Lake. His citation noted that he “quickly packaged and coordinated the transport of the victim, which required transport over 100 yards of mountainous sloped terrain at night.”
Michalski was also presented with a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (gold star in lieu of seventh award) for his achievements while serving as SAR leading petty officer, H-60 rescue crew chief, and VX-31 Senior Sailor of the Year for 2011. Michalski’s “knowledge of SAR procedures were key in seven life-saving rescues,” read the award.
“The extraordinary efforts of these Sailors demonstrated their ability to react quickly and professionally as a team, resulting in their ability to perform superbly and safely under immense pressure at the limit of their aircraft’s performance and ultimately save a man’s life,” said Col. Andre Mercier, VX-31 commanding officer.
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