A helicopter rescue at Piestwa Peak on Tuesday was supposed to be routine. When the Phoenix Fire Department pulled up the 74-year-old woman who had tripped and fallen during an early morning hike, the stretcher holding the hiker began to slowly spin. In seconds, the rotations intensified. Soon, the dangling patient was violently churning like a windmill.
The Phoenix Fire Department in a news conference on Tuesday said that it had successfully completed 210 helicopter hoist rescues on mountain missions in the course of the last six years. On only two occasions have they had instances of spinning.
“We do mountain rescues all of the time, but this particular one gathered quite a bit of attention because during the rescue, she was packaged on a hoist in a Stokes basket and she started to spin,” Assistant Fire Chief Shelly Jamison said.
The basket and woman first swayed before starting to rotate. The rate of rotation accelerated as the crew on the helicopter brought the basket closer to the rotors.
Paul Apolinar, the chief pilot of the police department’s aviation unit, attributed the violent rotations to a line that didn’t operate properly.
Complicating the crew’s efforts to stop the spin was the fact that the line intended to stop the basket from rotating broke.
“Sometimes when we bring the helicopter up from the ground, [the basket] will start to spin,” said Paul Apolinar. “We have a line attached to the basket that’s supposed to prevent that. Today it didn’t.”
“They tried to stop some of the spin with the line that Paul was referring to, but that didn’t work and it eventually broke,” said Derek Geisel, who was piloting the helicopter during the rescue.
The spinning continued for about 40 seconds as the crew tried to raise and lower the basket several times.
“When they start to lower the load, [the basket] does actually start to stop,” Geisel said. “And then we slowly brought it back up, it gets into the same downwash from the aircraft and it started to spin again.”
“Once we got the forward flight, the spin got to the point where they were safely able to bring the patient up to the aircraft,” Geisel said.
The spinning subsided after about a minute and the basket was brought alongside the crew of the helicopter, which took the patient to an ambulance.
Phoenix Fire Capt. Bobby Dubnow was the first to communicate with the woman after she was secured.
“I kind of was able to get in her face a little bit, make sure her eyes were open and told her everything was going to be okay,” he said.
Dubnow reported that the injured hiker is in stable condition and “suffered no ill effect from that spin, other than being a little bit dizzy.”
“We’re not trying to minimize what happened up there,” Dubnow said. He added: “It’s something we don’t expect, but we anticipate and we train for it. Nothing happened today that we weren’t prepared to deal with.”