Around the clock, Maryland State Police Aviation Command crews are on call at seven hangars, providing blanket helicopter rescue, law enforcement, and homeland security coverage.
In the 39 years the crews have been performing lifesaving missions, most often they are out of view of television cameras. But on Dec. 23, 2008, multiple news helicopters hovered near River Road in Bethesda, Md., to film a heroic rescue by pilot Jim MacKay and flight paramedic and hoist operator Sgt. Nate Wheelock under challenging conditions.
Trooper 2, a Eurocopter Dauphin AS-365, was dispatched from its hangar at Andrews Air Force Base to the scene—a break in a 66-inch water main, causing 150,000 gallons of water a minute to flow down a steep road, trapping at least seven vehicles in the three- to four-foot-deep, swiftly-flowing water.
The trapped drivers called 911, pleading for help as their cars filled with near-freezing water. Using rescue boats and ropes, the U.S. Park Police and the Montgomery County Swift Water Rescue Team were able to help some, but could not reach everyone. Time was critical as the outside air temperature was around 20 degrees. Wheelock quickly responded and was able to hoist three people to safety, threading the basket’s cable between 100-foot trees and wires.
The crew transported the remaining survivors—soaking wet, covered with ice, and shivering—to a nearby trauma center for treatment. Everyone made a complete recovery.
“There are never any guarantees. But I was focused. We were not going to give up until we had to fly away for fuel or the temperature overwhelmed us,” said Wheelock, 35. Now in his tenth year with the crew, he has been a paramedic since 1993 and with the state police for 11 years.
“This really checks your attitude. It’s a dangerous business that takes a drive and a passion. It’s what I love to do,” said Wheelock.
The crew of Trooper 2 was awarded the 2009 Goodrich North American Rescue of the Year award at the annual Goodrich Hoist and Winch Users Conference in February. The award recognizes those who put themselves at risk to save others. Candidates for the award should submit their stories, photos, or videos to Goodrich.
Selection criteria include the difficulties of the rescue and whether it was performed by a starter unit or first-time hoist user or has received media attention.
“I hope this provides some understanding to the people of Maryland of the assets that Maryland has and how lucky we are to have those assets,” said Wheelock. “Also, that we have the ability to go out and rescue people in this environment and in these conditions, providing timely care in good aircraft, enabling us to perform this type of mission.”