As a Maryland State Police helicopter pilot, Jim MacKay couldn’t believe the call that came in. “They want us to go to the scene of a water main break?” he thought. But as he approached the scene, the reason became clear. River Road in Bethesda, Maryland, had turned into a rushing river itself after the rupture of a 66-inch water main on a frigid December morning in 2008.
The break was located at the top of a deep ravine where River Road cuts through a sizable hill west of Washington, D.C. The water, under pressure from the huge pipe, cascaded down the hill creating rapids that looked like nearby Great Falls. Commuters were making their way into the city on the busy two-lane road and some were now trapped in the torrent in disabled cars.
MacKay and hoist operator, Sgt. Nate Wheelock, got into position over the narrow ravine—ringed with power lines and trees—and dropped the rescue basket. At times, MacKay estimates he had only six feet of clearance between the Aérospatiale Dauphin’s tail rotor and trees. Below, water gushed over the hood and windshield of a Subaru wagon. MacKay and Wheelock placed the basket on the passenger side of the vehicle just behind the right-front door. A 10-year-old boy jumped in. MacKay was just about to pull him up when he saw a second arm reach out and drop a purse in the basket. The boy’s mom emerged and hopped into the basket as well.
Wheelock tried to rotate the basket 90 degrees so it could fit through the door, but the hook apparatus was caked with ice from all of the spraying water—it wouldn’t budge.
“Ordinarily, I would never fly anywhere with people riding in a basket outside of the cabin, but I had no choice,” said MacKay. He flew about a half mile and set down in a school soccer field. Mom and son were brought in to the warm cabin as Wheelock beat the ice off the hook with a crash ax to enable him to rotate and stow the basket. They took off again for nearby Suburban Hospital where the patients were treated for hypothermia. In total, four people were plucked via helicopter from trapped vehicles that morning.
MacKay and Wheelock were lauded as heroes and appeared on NBC’s TODAY show the next morning. The rescue turned out to be a public-relations boon for Maryland State Police aviation, since just three months earlier a medevac crash of one of the Dauphins near Andrews Air Force Base put the whole division in jeopardy. Recently, the aviation division has taken on new life with deliveries of a new fleet of Agusta helicopters to replace the Dauphins.
Who | Jim MacKay, helicopter pilot
Hours | 4,514 hours
Ratings | ATP-rotorcraft; airplane single, multiengine land and sea; CFI-rotorcraft, commercial-lighter-than-air, gyroplane, glider
Work | MacKay works for a
government contractor flying medevac and general support missions in Iraq on a rotational basis.
Quote | “I’ve been the beneficiary of some of the best training in the world [U.S. Army and Air Force rescue] and love getting to do my job, to help people with the skills I’ve built.”