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Baptism by ice and snow

New State Police helicopter rescues four on Mount Colden

May 3, 2019
By GRIFFIN KELLY - Staff Writer (gkelly@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

A new helicopter helped state police and forest rangers rescue four teenagers on Mount Colden Tuesday afternoon, April 23.

State Police Troop B already has one helicopter based at the Adirondack Regional Airport in Lake Clear, and it gets heavy use. This new one should help share the workload.

Around 4 p.m. Tuesday, a rescue team responded to four 17-year-olds all from the Ballston Spa and Saratoga Springs area, who were stranded near the summit of Mount Colden, according to State Police. One of the teens was reported to have a leg injury, and all of the teen hikers were improperly equipped for the conditions. Forest rangers were dispatched to assist the subjects.

Article Photos

A new State Police Bell UH-1-A Huey helicopter, which aided in the rescue of four teens on Mount Colden Tuesday, April 23, is seen that same evening taking off from the Lake Placid Airport.
(News photo — Lou Reuter)

State Police Aviation delivered rangers to the summit of Little Colden using its new Bell UH-1-A Huey helicopter. The rescue squad transported the injured teen to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake around 6:45 p.m. Rangers treated the three remaining teens for varying stages of hypothermia at the scene and escorted them on foot to the Adirondak Loj where, they were reunited with family.

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Importance

Forest Ranger Lt. Julie Harjung, who is also chief of the Saranac Lake Volunteer Rescue Squad, wasn't part of the rescue on Colden, but in a phone interview April 24, she said the new helicopter is built to carry heavy loads and withstand windy conditions. She said helicopters are an important piece of equipment for the work she does.

"With the rescue squad, it's not often we need the helicopter - maybe once or twice a year," she said. "But the rangers need them fairly frequently."

Flying a helicopter into the High Peaks for a search and rescue is perilous work, Harjung said. Trees and mountains are everywhere, visibility can drop, and pilots have to combat storms occasionally.

"Any time a helicopter is used for rescue, there is a significant danger," she said. "Lots can go wrong, but it's an incredibly valuable and necessary resource."

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The Huey

Hueys were used extensively in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to conduct damage assessments and Hurricane Irene to conduct hoist rescues of distressed citizens. It was also one of the more common aircraft used by American forces in the Vietnam War.

In 2018, State Police utilized four Huey helicopters for more than 250 flights. This included missions for the state Department of Environmental Conservation to rescue stranded hikers and other injured citizens, re-stock lakes with fish, take water samples of various Adirondack lakes to monitor quality and pollution, and conduct wildlife surveys that track various tagged species.

In addition, the Huey helicopters conducted a number of missions to fight forest fires.

State Police Troop B, based in Ray Brook, acquired the new aircraft through the U.S. Department of Defense 1033 Excess Property program in July 2018. Before arriving in the North Country, mechanics at the State Police Aviation Headquarters equipped it with a rescue hoist and radio communications, updated navigational databases and performed additional maintenance before it could be put into service here.

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A closer look

State Police pilot Scott Kotronis was explaining Troop B's latest rescue vehicle, a Bell UH-1-A Huey, when he was cut off by the whir of an approaching Bell 430 on Thursday, April 25. He let the other chopper finish its two-minute cool down before continuing.

"This is a fantastic piece of equipment," said state Police Aviation Director Brent Gillam. "It's vital to have it permanently assigned up here. It took a lot of work to get it, but it will be put to good use."

Kotronis and Gillam said the Huey is intended for firefighting, rescue work, DEC supply missions and spotting illegal pot fields. The other Troop B helicopter, a Bell 430 obtained in 2002, will mostly be used for medical evacuation and transport. Often, it takes critically ill or injured patients from local hospitals across Lake Champlain to the region's trauma center, University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington.

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Numbers unavailable

Kotronis and Gillam said they didn't have any data on whether the number of rescue missions that require helicopters is increasing.

"Things are cyclical," Gillam said. "Sometimes we use it more in the winter. Sometimes we use it more in the summer."

"There's no set time," Kotronis said. "There are times where you can have a couple of rescues in a day and other times where you can go weeks without a rescue mission."

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Gear

There is still snow and ice on mountains in the Adirondacks, which may have been a surprise to the four teenagers rescued April 23. One of them was wearing shorts, and others wore basketball shoes, Forest Ranger Scott Sabo told the Times Union of Albany.

Forest Ranger Rob Praczkajlo was also part of the rescue on Mount Colden. He's been going on rescue missions for the past 19 years. Accidents happen all time in the Adirondacks. People trip, get lost or get exhausted. Praczkajlo said something as small as a sprained ankle can turn into a life-threatening situation in the mountains. He said people might be prepared for going up a mountain but not the trip back.

"We tell people they need to bring clothes to stay overnight," he said. "Even if they're doing the shortest summit hike, you should be prepared to spend the night. And also have a headlamp. That's another very common mistake people make."

Praczkajlo and Kotronis said that's what they pack when they hop in the helicopter for a rescue mission. They also bring snowshoes or microspikes along.

The helicopter, too, is equipped with attachments called "bear paws," which allow it to land on unstable terrain.

"Even the chopper's got its snowshoes," Kotronis said.

Gillam said the State Police Aviation Unit has 50 members, 32 of whom are stationed in northern New York.

 
 

 

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