Navy, National Guard personnel survive helicopter ﾑforced landingﾒ
The forced landing of a U. S. Navy Knighthawk helicopter last Thursday made Pocahontas County the focus of military maneuvers and regional news media. The chopper made the forced landing sometime in the early afternoon in a remote mountainous area near the Randolph County line.
According to Pocahontas County Office of Emergency Management director Melvin Martin all 17 men onboard survived the crash with non-life-threatening injuries. Martin said the men were in better shape than he initially thought. The last man, who was entrapped, was flown from Shavers Fork Fire Department near Snowshoe Mountain Resort Friday around noon.
The aircraft was participating in the Southbound Trooper X military exercise, according to a National Guard media release. STX is an annual exercise focusing on the integration of joint U.S. and NATO tactics and procedures, as well as inter-service coordination and capabilities, the release said.
A Navy media release said the injuries ranged from minor bruises to fractures. The Navyﾒs media release said 11 men on board were Navy personnel, four were members of the National Guard and two were Marines.
The mission to rescue the 17 men was successful, but not without its impediments, both weather-related and man-made.
Weather conditions about the estimated time of the incident may have been hazardous. According to local weather observer Jason Bauserman, freezing rain was falling on Cheat Mountain on Rt. 250 at the estimated time of the forced landing. Bauserman said when he left his home at Bartow, a light drizzle was falling, but by the time he reached more mountainous heights, the drizzle had turned to a frozen glaze on his windshield.
Bauserman said he called the National Weather Service, which in turn, passed along the information to the Navy. The NWS can spot precipitation, but cannot determine either consistency or amounts, Bauserman said.
Weather conditions on the groundﾗmore than four feet of snowﾗalso hampered rescue efforts. Those conditions were overcome with Snowcats from Snowshoe Mountain Resort and snowmobiles on the Shavers Fork Bridge side of the rescue efforts and bulldozers and a grader on the Cheat Bridge side.
Confusion about the downed chopperﾒs location may have impeded the rescue efforts for several hours. Although first reports placed the location between Cass and Durbin, a subsequent miscommunication erroneously relocated the forced landing to 20 miles south of Lewisburg. At that point, Pocahontas Countyﾒs emergency services were ordered to stand down.
The focus shifted back to Pocahontas County after local officials learned a National Guard helicopter had dropped two medics into the area near the downed chopperﾒs location.
West Virginiaﾒs Office of Homeland Security lost communication with the medics shortly after they were dropped.
Incorrect coordinates caused another snafu.
Martin said local rescue squads from Bartow-Frank-Durbin and Shavers Fork were on hold awaiting word on how to proceed.
Communications were directed through the National Guard to the Navy to a C-130 Hercules, a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft, flying over the area, Martin said. The C130 had contact with the group on the ground, he said.
The Knighthawk was equipped with 13 flares. Personnel were told to set off a flare at 11 p.m., but emergency crews poised to see the first set of coordinates couldnﾒt get a visual on the flare. A second setﾠ of coordinates, just a tenth of a mile away and a second flare produced the same results, Martin said.
With a third set of coordinates and a location two-and-a-half miles north, they finally pinpointed the correct site near the Randolph County line.
While the OEM was trying to coordinate how to get to the remote area ﾓin the middle of nowhere,ﾔ Martin said, B-F-D Fire Chief Buster Varner made contact with National Guard personnel and made a plan to use bulldozers to push the snow along the railroad grade.
ﾓSo much snow,ﾔ Martin said. ﾓIt was a no manﾒs land.ﾔ
In the meantime, Shannon Boehmer and Shavers Fork Fire and Rescue were headed into the scene from the opposite direction using Snowcats from Snowshoe Mountain Resort.
ﾓShavers Fork wound up almost on top [of the downed helicopter],ﾔ Martin said.
At that point, B-F-D was called back and told to take their ambulances to the Shavers Fork Bridge to await the injured for transport.
Military aircraft used in the rescue efforts used the National Radio Astronomy Observatory as a command center. One Blackhawk helicopter on its way to the site was forced to make an emergency landing due to low fuel.
ﾓThe main purpose [they landed here], their helicopter was out of fuel,ﾔ NRAOﾒs communications director Mike Holstine said. ﾓHe made his quick landing at the air strip and by chance, ran into Christine Plumley and we set up at that time. Our proximity to B-F-D [in Green Bank] helped coordinate the effort quickly.ﾔ
The National Guard used the NRAO offices as its main base of operation and a make-shift hotel.
Several NRAO employees spent the night at the office to offer assistance in the search and rescue.
The cause of the crash is still under investigation, the release said.