The first commandment of aviation: Thou shalt maintain thy airspeed, lest the ground rise up and smite thee.
Lieutenant Colonel Rick McIntyre’s PJs often attributed a sinister motivation to the mountain. Sometimes they even kept score—Yosemite, 3, Humans, 0.
But he’d never really bought into it. Now, as he watched the Black Hawk tumble down Mount Hood, he was beginning to reconsider.
Retirement—fishing to be exact—was looking pretty good right about now.
He didn’t know who the pilot was, but he felt for him.
Rick had been in midsentence, leaning over the map-strewn table that took up over half of David Quillen’s office. He still wore his coat, not having gotten warm yet from the walk inside. If he wanted to be this cold, he’d live in Colorado or go home to Minnesota.
It was the tone of the voice, rather than the words, that reached in from the outer room and silenced him. Made him listen.
“Sirs, get out here,” someone hollered again.
On cue, both David and Rick moved. Fast.
Not ten minutes earlier, Rick had passed the dayroom, saying hello to members of Bravo Element who lounged around the room, eating a late lunch and watching Fox News. Their lack of movement when he passed by made him smile. Yet, he fervently hoped—not for the first time—that had a general walked in, the boys would have shown a bit more respect.
It had taken him years to instill their casual disregard for his rank, and when it came right down to it, they never balked when he gave an order.
Now, as he entered the dayroom, there was no lounging. Nic D’Onofrio and Eric Cruz sat forward on the couch. Chris Gabriel stood behind them. Joey Amonte and Will Pitkin flanked the television in raggedy, mismatched recliners, fully engaged with the drama playing out on the nineteen-inch screen.
“The chopper was hovering when it just seemed to dip its nose into the mountain and then it just dropped and rolled,” said the stunned commentator. “This Air Force rescue helicopter is part of the 304th Rescue Squadron based in Portland…”
“Holy shit,” Quillen whispered in a most un-Quillen-like way.
Rick’s stomach clenched as the ten-ton Jolly Green nosed into the snow and pitched obscenely—almost in slow motion—down the side of Mt. Hood. Its rotors splintered as it tumbled, and about the third time they showed it, he could make out one of the crew members being ejected before the chopper rolled over him.
Every commander’s nightmare—endangering the lives of your guys. Every pilot’s nightmare—getting your crew, your patient or yourself killed. At least, the crew had the foresight to release the hoist cable to the Stokes litter that held the patient, dropping him to safety before the tumble.
Never mind the high-dollar frown on the faces of the pencil pushers.
And, in this case, never mind the complete humiliation of crashing your bird as the cameras rolled.
For the next few weeks, every time he flew, that image played in his head. God only knew how the crew, several of which having been rolled over by the helo on its slow descent, lived. The others, initially enmeshed in the wreckage, miraculously made it as well.
Lucky bastards. It wasn’t their day to die.
Sixteen Months Later
I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto,” Rick whispered into the swirling snow. He squeezed his eyes shut and focused on breathing in and breathing out.
So much to sort out.
Friday the 13th. Good grief. It wasn’t even noon yet, and this made it official. The mountain was closed for business. No one was going anywhere.
They’d gotten word of stranded climbers about nine last night. Daniel Fraser, the Search and Rescue commander for Yosemite, had scrambled a hasty team up in the dark. This morning, they waited for the helo for extraction. Weather was moving in fast, providing only a brief window to get PJs in there and get everyone out again.
Sgt. Bell had done a hurry-up preflight. Lt. Morrisett was waiting when Rick got to the bird. The kid would co-pilot. He was damn good for his age and flight time.
Rick circled his gloved finger in the air as he jogged to the bird, and the kid fired up the engines.
D’Onofrio and Wiley threw their packs in back and hopped on board. If he didn’t know the way each man moved, he’d have not been able to differentiate between them—they were covered completely.
Rick’s radio crackled. “Sir, you need to shave fifteen off this deal. Your weather is moving faster than we thought.”
“Dandy. Head ‘em up, move ‘em out.”
Minutes later, they’d hoisted Nic and Matt, along with the Stokes litter down to Daniel and his crew. The report was that one of the climbers had a broken ankle and the other was in good shape.
Rick let the lieutenant find a place to put down to wait for the ground crew to be ready for extraction. Everything seemed okay. Yeah, the snow was falling harder by the minute, but this wasn’t some wimpy whirlybird used by the Flight for Life guys. The Hawk could handle anything.
Glen Morrisett lowered the collective and started the descent to the large flat spot he’d picked. Upslope, a wisp of snow swirled down the hill on fickle mountain wind.
“Watch your rate of descent, Lieutenant. Looks like we have a downslope.”
The lieutenant was on course. Angle looked right, but the rate of descent was a little high. Rick’s shoulders tensed and his gut tightened. Something didn’t feel right, didn’t sound right.
Rick looked quickly at the power. It was taking too much to hold the approach. His ear picked up another ominous warning: the rotors were slowing down. Something was wrong and getting worse. Bad. But not too bad… yet.
“I have the aircraft,” Rick said, glancing to his left, smiling to reassure the kid. “Nothing personal.”
“Yes, sir. You got it.”
Rick needed to arrest the descent. He eased the nose down slightly, trying to trade a little of the remaining altitude for air speed. The lieutenant continued to call out the rate of descent every fifty feet.
Landing was the only option now. They were too low, too slow for another go around.
“Sink eight, we’re too fast,” Glen reported, his voice tense.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Normal descent rate at one hundred feet above the ground should be three hundred. That made their current eight hundred a shitload too fast.
Fifty feet above the ground, Rick tried to flare the helicopter and pick up any ground cushion, but it just wasn’t there today. What else could he do? His mind scrambled for options.
The right main landing gear buckled under the initial impact, driving the nose deep into the powdery snow.
Wracked by spasms, the helicopter’s frame bowed beneath his feet.
The fuselage twisted violently to the right as the rotors bit into the snow pack. Instinctively, Rick ducked his head to avoid the rotors’ mad flex slicing through the cockpit.
Shattering glass was overwhelmed by the scream of metal on metal.
The entire aircraft wrenched savagely as the engines shattered from catastrophic failure of the high-speed compressor.
Red-hot shards of metal shot through the air and sizzled in the snow on impact.
The grinding of each small part gave way eventually to silence.
Tucked back in the radio room at the SAR building, Lily Atherton could tell something was wrong. She’d been running the SAR communications long enough to know most of the voices by heart. With Daniel, she could pick up on the subtleties of his moods.
Everything was okay a few minutes ago. The colonel had dropped off two PJs—Nic D’Onofrio and, she thought, Matt Wiley—along with a Stokes litter. One of her guys had reported the chopper away after the drop.
Then there was chatter. They were talking to each other, not to her.
Something was wrong, but they weren’t saying what.
“901, Search Base, status?” Her way of finding out.
“Yeah, Search Base, stand by one,” Daniel responded, his voice tight with tension.
Seconds, maybe even minutes ticked by.
“Search Base, 901.”
“Go, 901.” Lily tried to keep her voice smooth, calm. It was an exercised skill, and over the last year and a half, she’d had more than a few opportunities to practice.
“Base, please see if you can reach Zero Eight on our frequencies.”
Her stomach clenched. Reach the bird? That didn’t sound good.
“Leroy Zero Eight, this is Search Base on MRA channel one.”
She repeated the plea twice on each of three Mountain Rescue Association frequencies. She even tried on National Law frequency.
“901, Search Base, negative contact with Leroy. Do I need to contact the RCC?”
The Rescue Coordination Center was the military equivalent of her office there. A sharp dread settled in her heart as she waited for Daniel’s answer.
Rick McIntyre was flying that chopper.
“Copilot, Engineer, everyone okay?”
Sergeant Bell, flight engineer, was in the back, but the only sound he made was a half-assed moan. Not good.
“Master Sergeant Bell, talk to me,” Rick shouted over the wind.
Another moan, maybe a slurred word.
Rick, then, made the mistake of looking to his left to check on Glen. Once he looked, he had trouble looking away. His throat closed on the sight.
Glen sat upright, his hands still fisted on the seat in an attempt to lessen the impact. His head was down, as if he looked in wonder at the gash that rent his neck and left shoulder nearly in two. Blood no longer poured down his front, his heart no longer pumping.
“Aw, geez, kid.”
Rick squeezed his eyes shut and forced his head back to center.
The rotor blade had flexed, just after they hit the ground, and taken out Glen easily. Man was no match for that. He took a deep breath and began assessing his own situation. No time for anything else.
Breathing was okay. Hurt a lot, but okay.
He flexed his arms. Arms okay.
Ahh, crap, legs not okay.
He looked down and tried to move his left foot. Ouch. His PJs would have asked him to rate his pain on a scale of one to ten. Okay, moving his left foot—a two.
Trying the right.
If a man screamed in a snowstorm, with no one around to hear, did he really make any noise? Bell was in the rear seat. But he was, apparently, not conscious.
Right leg—on a scale of one to ten—a definite forty-three. Even now, he could see swelling in his knee. His flight suit was getting tight.
Odd, the blood was going up his uniform.
He glanced out the broken windshield. They were, indeed, upright.
So, what the hell…
One would think it would hurt to have a piece of Plexiglas sticking out from below the rib cage. It didn’t. But that explained the blood.
One dead, one unconscious—presumably seriously injured—and one with an obvious Plexiglas injury. No help on the way—he was the help.
Hell, that also left his men—and Daniel’s—stranded.
He tried in vain to raise a voice on the other end of the radio. Either the radio bit the dust on impact, or they were out of range. Likely, it was the first.
Okay, he carried a hand-held radio in the lower-right pocket of his survival vest. If he couldn’t reach the RCC, maybe he could at least reach his PJs on the mountain a few ridges over. For the life of him, he couldn’t think who he’d just dropped off.
He keyed the mic. “PJs on the ground, this is Scarecrow.”
No reply. He repeated.
Another long pause, then a voice.
“Scarecrow, this is Search Base. How copy?”
Not his PJs? Search Base? He scrambled his brain to make sense.
“Scarecrow, Search Base. How copy?”
Daniel’s base. Oh. Okay.
“This is Scarecrow. I hear you fine.”
Lily let out her breath. After listening to the edgy calls from the PJs to their commander, both on the RCC frequency, then on hers, with no reply, she’d begun to panic.
Then Rick’s voice. A voice she knew. A voice she always listened for.
She’d only been on the team for maybe two weeks when she’d first laid eyes on Colonel McIntyre. He’d meandered into the SAR headquarters during a particularly ugly mission to toss ideas around with Daniel. He wore his flight suit. Even then, his brown hair was starting to gray at the edges. Prematurely, no doubt. The guy couldn’t have been much over forty.
The man was truly handsome. Not in a Hollywood glamour sort of way, though. He was well built, maybe six foot two. Lily was used to well-built guys in SAR, though. Being fit was an unspoken require in the team. Even more so for the guys who did this for a living.
The other thing she’d notice about him that day was his hands. He had really nice hands.
No, what made Colonel Rick McIntyre so amazing was his personality. He struggled with seriousness, which was quite a contrast to Daniel Fraser, who rarely even neared frivolity. To Rick, everything had a humorous side and he made good use of it. He tried Daniel’s patience, but delighted Lily. The odd thing, though, was that he didn’t smile much. The laughter was mostly in his eyes. Smiling, somewhere in his past, had worn deep lines in his face, though.
She only met him that day, but had been watching—and listening—from afar, ever since.
For what it was worth, he wasn’t married.
Of course, he was nearly old enough to be her father.
Lily keyed the mic. “Scarecrow, what’s your status?”
Rick hesitated. Unlike the RCC frequencies, the MRA ones weren’t secure. Anyone with a scanner from Radio Shack could pick up traffic. That’s why the SAR guys were always careful to talk in code when things were particularly snarky. But he hadn’t listened in on their frequency enough to know the codes they used.
Then again, if his guys couldn’t hear him a mile away and base could, it was likely a low-power scanner couldn’t pick up his end of the conversation. No other way that he could think of, so he forged ahead.
“Base, we have one fatality, one serious injury and one less serious.”
“Standby, Colonel, while I relay to your team.”
Rick listened as the voice—a female voice—relayed what he’d said to Daniel, using code.
“Colonel, please give me details about the injuries.”
“Stand by, Base,” he answered.
Rick tried to turn around to see Bell. Instead he was left catching his breath from the screaming pain through his belly and leg. Okay, so glass in your belly did hurt. Big time.
He couldn’t see Bell. But he heard him moan.
“Base, my FE—my flight engineer—” better not speak military. “… is alive but unconscious. He’s moaning but not answering me. Sounds like he’s still in his seat. I’m afraid I can’t turn around to check on him. How copy?”
“Go ahead, Colonel.”
“I’ve broken my right knee, and I seem to be impaled on Plexiglas. Right through my stomach. Other than that, I’m in one piece.”
Poor choice of words as poor Glen was not. “Copy?”
Lily copied loud and clear. Rick was trapped in the cockpit with a dead man and one who soon could be. It didn’t get much more awful than that.
“I copy, Colonel. Are we speaking on your helicopter’s radio or on the handheld?”
Rick confirmed he was on his handheld, that he had a fresh battery, a backup battery and, if necessary, he could maybe reach another radio. She passed the information on to her team then asked Rick to hang on while she informed the RCC.
At one o’clock in the afternoon when Daniel reported that his team, including the two PJs were intent on making it down the mountain while they could. They’d splinted their patient’s ankle and were en route out the hard way.
She informed the colonel and assured him that she’d spoken to Lieutenant Quillen. A plan to get him and Bell assistance was in the works. The PJs were on it and if they needed help from any of her guys, they had it.
Rick reported that Bell was still moaning, he was still okay, and it was snowing harder. He’d conserve the radio battery by turning it off until the top of every hour and he’d set his watch to beep hourly.
By two o’clock—seemed like a hundred phone calls later—Quillen had arranged another chopper to go get Scarecrow. PJs Cruz and Gabriel were gearing up. Now that there was a plan, there seemed to be less panic in their voices.
Daniel’s team made progress, though the snow was coming down harder.
Rick had pulled out his space blanket and tried to stay dry. The wind was up a few knots, and he urged caution to the other team.
By three o’clock, Daniel reported fifty mile-per-hour winds and blizzard conditions. The window for rescue closed.
His team had found a place to hunker down for the night. They had seven men, two tents, and everything they needed to ride out the storm. The panic level creeped up again.
“Colonel, I’m afraid I have bad news,” Lily said in as steady a voice as she could pull off.
“No in-flight movie?”
“Right, sir.” When had she started calling him sir?
“And it’ll be morning before I see a friendly face?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”