Calamity on Mt. Hood

When shifting winds downed a helicopter.

Helicopters were called in to help rescue climbers who fell into this crevasse on Mount Hood in 2002.

Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of the dangers of mountain helicopter flying is the 2002 attempted rescue of four injured climbers on Oregon’s Mount Hood, when an HH-60G Pave Hawk of the Air Force Reserve Command’s 304th Rescue Squadron crashed. The crash was broadcast live on a number of Oregon stations and then nationally, but what actually happened has been unknown, until now, because the official incident report remains classified, and the aircraft commander has given only one brief interview (for a Portland TV station, marking the crash’s 10th anniversary).

The commander, then-Captain Grant Dysle (pronounced DICE-lee), agreed to speak with me over the phone. Dysle is now a lieutenant colonel and assistant director of operations for the 728th Airlift Squadron and flies the C-17 Globemaster III for the Air Force Reserve Command’s 446th Airlift Wing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. 

“We knew about the accident early in the morning,” he says. “We came up with what power was available and the power that would be required for a lift at that altitude [10,700 feet above sea level].” The numbers were the same—91 percent—leaving no power margin. “We knew we were going to be tight. The winds start to swirl in the afternoon; the place where the accident occurred was atop a structure called the Hogback. It is basically a spine of wind-built snow, like a sand dune.”

Although the Pave Hawk crew had been prepared to launch long before noon, Dysle explains that the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, did not approve the rescue until 1 p.m. for reasons never made clear to him. “Had we launched earlier, then this accident wouldn’t have happened,” he says.

“Once they released us, we got out there quick, in 20 minutes.” Along with Dysle were a copilot, a flight engineer, and three Air Force Reserve Pararescuemen, called PJs. Dysle landed the Pave Hawk at Timberline Lodge, 5,960 feet above sea level and almost a mile beneath the accident scene, to discuss the rescue with the sheriff. By then, one UH-60 Black Hawk from the Oregon National Guard was en route to a hospital with an injured climber. A second Black Hawk from the same company was in the process of hoisting another.

“We launched out of Timberline and dumped fuel to reduce our weight,” Dysle says. “I had just enough fuel to get the survivor out and get to the hospital.” During a first pass, he found his escape route, where he’d aim the helicopter should he suddenly lose power.

“We dropped a PJ and a stokes litter after making one pass and then coming around and into a hover.” While the PJ and ground rescue team strapped the injured climber into the litter, Dysle guided the Pave Hawk to the east so the rotor wash wouldn’t hamper the efforts of the 25 or so rescuers directly below him. Once he headed back toward the rescue site, Dysle planned to lower the hoist line and retrieve the injured climber; the PJ would walk off the mountain.

In their second stable hover, Dysle remembers that they were holding at roughly 81 percent power. Suddenly Dysle saw a problem. “Just as they clipped the cable onto the stokes litter, I noticed the pitch of the rotors change, so I looked down initially before we tightened the cable and I hear a droop [a drop in the rotation rate of the main rotor]. I looked inside to my gauges and I saw that I was at 98 percent [power]. A few seconds later, we drooped significantly, and I get the warning horns and lights.” The predominant headwind and updraft had changed within seconds to a crosswind, and then to a dangerously strong tailwind—with no updraft.

With the climber’s litter still tethered to the helicopter, Dysle needed a surge of power to recover stability, but the Pave Hawk’s engines simply could not deliver. Fearing for the safety of the people on the snow below him, Dysle nudged the craft to the left to get away from the scene, at which point the flight engineer lost his balance and fell across the cabin. “He jumped up and dove for the emergency shear switch” to cut the hoist cable. “Saved the survivor’s life.” 

Losing both control and altitude as the wind shifted, Dysle and crew prepared to ditch. “You pull 100 percent collective to slow down the rotor system, and believe me, it didn’t take a whole lot of thought. There were a lot of emotions and thoughts going through that sequence.” The refueling probe hit the snow first, scraping along for a few feet, then the rotor blades hit and shattered, with pieces shooting out in all directions and causing the helicopter to tumble. The Pave Hawk rolled down the slope seven and a half times, tossing the flight engineer into the snow along the way. One PJ was thrown out on the last roll, while the other “just bounced around in the back and got a bunch of bruises.” Dysle and the copilot, strapped into their seats, emerged virtually unscathed. Incredibly, no one was severely hurt.

An investigation by an accident review board blamed the crash on the wind shift. Rescuers evacuated the remaining injured climbers, and the Pave Hawk was eventually salvaged and rebuilt, only to be shot down in Afghanistan in 2010.

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