MINOT AIR FORCE BASE Members of the 54th Helicopter Squadron at Minot Air Force Base responded to a search-and-rescue request involving two men trapped in the bed of their truck in Savage, Mont., when an ice flow caused the river to overrun its banks on Monday.
At about midnight the crew received a phone call from the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center requesting a hoist-equipped aircraft to respond to the scene.
Rescue workers from the local area had responded to the scene but were unable to get to the stranded people due to the large chunks of ice in the water. Additionally, the situation was further compounded by an ice flow upstream on the verge of breaking free.
From the left, Capt. Matthew Sutliff, 1st Lt. Kyle Nelson, Tech. Sgt. Jason Fifield and Staff Sgt. Michael Wright are the 54th Helicopter Squadron crew members from Minot Air Force Base who did a successful search and rescue earlier this week of two men at Savage, Mont., shown in this photo by Senior Airman Stephanie Sauberan.
The Minot Air Force Base aircrew who responded to the scene had just concluded a night vision goggle flight and was preparing to turn over their duties for the night and return to base when the call came in.
"Two Security Forces' members walked into our squadron and told us that there had been a request for a search and rescue," said Capt. Matthew Sutliff, 91st Missile Wing chief of flight safety. "My co-pilot and two flight engineers jumped into their flight suits, and we responded to the scene."
As Sutliff confirmed the request, his flight engineer readied the aircraft, double checking fuels supplies, conducting pre-flight checks and ensuring the safety of the hoist to be used in the rescue efforts.
The search site
The Sidney (Mont.) Herald reported the two men rescued, Jason Nelson and Dennis Schmierer, of Savage, Mont., were checking the river's levels at about 9 p.m. Monday when they heard a noise upstream. But they were alerted to danger when a vehicle on higher ground honked to them. Sheriff Brad Baisch said the men's vehicle was more than 500 yards from dry land with water and chunks going by, the Sidney Herald said. After the men were rescued, they were taken to a Sidney medical center where they were checked and then released.
Savage Fire Department Fire Chief Marshall Vojacek, who was in charge of the search and rescue, said the area where the men were is a local spot where people go to check the water.
Once the Minot AFB helicopter and its aircrew arrived, the rescue went fairly quick, observers said. "It was really impressive," said a local fire department member.
Savage, about 28 miles southwest of Sidney, is along the Yellowstone River.
The primary mission of the 54th Helicopter Squadron at Minot AFB is to support the 91st Missile Wing and the Minot missile complex. The squadron also supports medical evacuations and rescue searches.
"Kudos to our maintenance guys," said Tech. Sgt. Jason Fifield, enlisted aircrew member with the helicopter squadron. "I ran to the hanger in my pajamas and slippers after we got the call that said we were going to do this. They didn't even think twice about it. They dropped what they were doing and started prepping the aircraft, while I ran upstairs to put my gear on. By the time I got back to tell them to tow it outside, they already had it on the pad and were fueling it."
As the aircraft was being prepared for flight, co-pilot 1st Lt. Kyle Nelson was running mission planning, drawing the lines on the map for the flight course and determining flight time and refueling locations.
"I have only been flying for six months out of the training environment," said Nelson. "This was my first search-and-rescue mission, but I didn't really think about that. I just focused on what needed to get done."
The planning process before takeoff took about one hour from the time the call was received. Once the crew was in the air it took them just under an hour to reach the sight.
"It felt like laying out our plans took an eternity on the ground, but once we did step into our aircraft, it was reassuring to know that we were properly prepared to complete the mission and confront any complications that might arise," said Sutliff.
Arriving on scene, the crew was greeted by the sight of two men stranded in the center of the floodwaters, standing in the bed of their truck as frigid water rushed by threatening to sweep away their vehicle and engulf them.
"The most important part of missions like this is to plan for the unexpected," said Sutliff. "Snags will inevitably arise, but it is up to us as a team to find fast solutions and overcome them without compromising the mission."
Sutliff initiated the first hover, holding the aircraft in place and fighting against the winds and over the rushing water as Fifield leaned out of the aircraft, holding himself in place as he began to lower the hoist.
"My co-pilot and I had to be careful to fix our vision on a stable object in order to stay in position, at the same time Tech. Sgt. Fifield was giving me direction and also instructing the first survivor on how to use the hoist," said Sutliff.
The first hoist was conducted from about 65 feet above the rushing waters and took just under 25 minutes. At this point, both men had been stranded 510 yards from shore for about five hours.
"It sounds weird, but you just focus on your training focus on what you have to do," said Staff Sgt. Michael Wright, an enlisted aircrew member with the helicopter squadron. "You can't let anything else get in the way of completing the mission."
After the first survivor was secured in the aircraft, rescue of the second person began. Sutliff relinquished control of the helicopter to his co-pilot as Wright took over for Fifield.
The enlisted aircrew members were constantly scanning the aircraft as well as the condition of the survivors, ensuring that they were a safe distance from the aircraft during the lift, and that they were able to safely board. With Wright's assistance, Nelson was able to lift the second man to safety.
The team transported both survivors to the nearby Sidney Richland Municipal Airport where emergency responders were standing by.
"It was amazing," said Fifield. "I couldn't sleep for a long time after landing knowing that we had been able to save the lives of those two men."
The rescue effort was a success due to a solid, unified team," said Sutliff. It was a testament to their near countless hours of training.
"When we were called into action my team was able to successfully come together to complete the mission and save lives," said Sutliff. "I couldn't be more proud of what they were able to do, and of the fact that we put our training to use and made a real difference in the lives of these two men."