Lake Trauma

Helicopter medics know Lake Powell by another name

June 1, 2000

Lake Powell has a dual personality, one tranquil and one violent. The serene beauty of America’s second-largest manmade reservoir (Lake Mead is the largest) stretches from Page, Arizona, into Utah for 186 miles, and ranges in depth from three inches to 560 feet (at the Glen Canyon Dam). It is a top recreational draw for people from several states.

Classic Helicopters, based at Page Municipal Airport, serves both of the lake’s personalities. When tourists want to see the spectacular scenery the lake provides, Classic Helicopters pilot Dave Solomon shows them thousand-foot-high rock towers, nearly inaccessible rock arches, and hidden canyons. When those same tourists ram their houseboat into a rock wall or fall while climbing, Matt Stein—Classic Helicopter’s general manager and lead medical pilot—picks them up.

The company got its start serving the medical needs of Page, Lake Powell, and the nearby Navajo Nation. The harrowing accounts of Stein’s flights, and those of Classic Lifeguard Program Director Bill Miner, inspire a new respect for safe boating and careful rock climbing.

"Lake Powell can be an oasis of trauma," Stein said. "You have a mix of water, speed, and alcohol. Sometimes stupidity is added in there, too. The Jet Skis get faster and more powerful every year. Sometimes you have kids that are too young to be riding them. You have people jumping off of cliffs and getting hurt. Boat propeller cuts. Boy, you name it, and I’ve seen it all out there."

Here’s a typical mission—a moonless night flight that forced Stein to fly directly toward a rock wall to reach a ledge that was too narrow for a landing. There was little clearance for his rotor blades.

"We had a couple of German men get stuck on a cliff trying to climb back down from Castle Rock, a large formation in the center of Lake Powell," Stein said. "One of them was in a very precarious position. There was no way he could have lasted the whole night without falling to his death. It was a dark, moonless night. I had to take a couple of park rangers out there. There was nowhere to land near this gentleman, so we had to do a toe-on. You only have so much clearance for your rotor. We could only fit the forward toes of the skids on the ledge, and get on just enough for the rangers to hop out the [front left] copilot’s door and onto the ledge. The rest of the helicopter was hanging over a 1,000-foot drop. This is all in the dark, remember. I had to go out quite a few times—taking one ranger at a time and equipment, and then take them off one at a time after first removing the climber."

Daylight doesn’t necessarily make a rescue any easier. Another flight involved a doctor on vacation with his brother.

"These gentlemen were in a canyon where a flash flood was going through," Stein recalled. "It is called Buckskin Gulch. There is only one place where you can fit a helicopter into Buckskin Gulch. It is known as a slot canyon. We had to hover down 800 feet—with less than 50 feet of clearance off either side of the rotor. The men were out of food and ideas, and the water was chest deep and getting deeper." The rescue went well. Stein has had plenty of practice, transporting 1,000 patients in the years he has been in Page.

Miner, a registered nurse and paramedic, said helicopter evacuations have dramatically improved survival. "The first year we cut the mortality off the lake 90 percent. There were up to 16 people a year dying in accidents.

"This is a high-impact lake," Miner said. "The philosophy on the part of some people is, we’re going to come down here, have fun, party—they are not going to tell us what to do. We’re on our own dime. We’re on vacation. So if we want to get drunk and drive our houseboat into a wall, that’s what we’re going to do. We want to jump 80 feet off a cliff. We want to get carbon monoxide poisoning on our boat after turning off the CO 2 protectors because they are noisy and wake us at night. We want to cross the wakes of the big tour boats that will put our personal watercraft 10 feet in the air," Miner continued. "When the [personal watercraft riders] come down, they get compression injuries of the spine and neck.

"It is kind of a knife-and-gun club down here because of the devastating trauma. Flagstaff, Arizona, has the trauma hospital—but that’s an hour away [by helicopter]. Page’s hospital is just a holding hospital to take those in critical condition and stabilize them, and then we move them on." Miner said that his medical program recently received national certification.

"All the rescues are dramatic," Miner said. "We don’t have any plain, everyday rescues here. I went recently on a mission to transport a police officer who was shot by an assailant near Beaver, Utah."

Miner counts a mission in Utah as among his most memorable. "I had one in Zion Canyon 2,000 feet up a cliff. We had a gentleman with an open femur fracture. It would have taken four hours to get him out of there without a helicopter. We did a dry-run practice on the ground. [Then] we put the tip of the skids on the mountain and loaded the patient through the copilot’s door, with the door removed."

Stein said his helicopter operations have had a presence in Page for 12 years—starting with an emergency medical services program that operated only a few months each summer. "Lake Powell is a very isolated community [130 miles from Flagstaff, 86 miles from Kanab]," Stein said. The medical evacuation program then increased every year. The season expanded, and 1992 was the first year the company operated the full year round. Last summer, medical operations expanded to two shifts.

"We support Lake Powell, Navajo Indian reservations, and national parks. We do firefighting services for the [Federal] Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service," Stein said.

Classic Helicopters is actually three companies in one: Classic Helicopters is the parent company, Classic Aviation is the new Texaco-branded FBO at Page, and Classic Lifeguard is the medical program.

"We moved into a new FBO building a little over a year ago," Stein said. "We started doing charters and marketing tours ranging from $39 to $160." He also supports production filming work, flies power and pipeline patrols, and aids with game counts for the fish and game departments. The latest project was to provide helicopter support for the filming of a commercial for the Ford Excursion in Monument Valley.

If you are interested in the tours, the shortest one takes in Lake Powell, Antelope Canyon, and Glen Canyon Dam. The Escalante Grand Tour takes you to Lake Powell, Rainbow Bridge, the Escalante River arm, Stevens Arch, and Jacob Hamblin Arch.

"We have some heli-hiking ideas in the works where we will support people on rafting trips," Stein said. "An idea I would like to put to work is taking people to the Rainbow Trail. They have a short downhill hike to the beautiful span of Rainbow Bridge. Further on down [the trail] is the tour boat [on which] they can have lunch while coming back down the lake."

If you want to enjoy the scenery, a helicopter is a great way to see Lake Powell. On a recent tour, Solomon hovers just above a rock formation, towering a thousand feet above the lake, and then flies past the edge. The effect is a breathtaking dropoff. But if you are interested in mixing boating and rock climbing with alcohol, inexperience, or carelessness, you may still get to ride Classic Helicopters. The problem is, you will be in no condition to enjoy it.


Links to additional information about Lake Powell and Classic Helicopters may be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links/links0006.shtml). E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.