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Fairchild makes case for helicopters

Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers tours the endangered 36th Rescue Flight Squadron at Fairchild Air Force Base in Airway Heights on Wednesday. 
 (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers tours the endangered 36th Rescue Flight Squadron at Fairchild Air Force Base in Airway Heights on Wednesday. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Commanders at the Survival School at Fairchild Air Force Base are preparing to lose their four rescue helicopters this summer under orders from the Pentagon.

But that doesn’t mean they would turn down a chance Wednesday to tell their congresswoman just how important those UH-1N Hueys from the 36th Rescue Flight are to their primary job of training Air Force flight crews, and their secondary job of rescuing civilians who get in trouble in a four-state area.

The Survival School trains about 300 airmen a year how to survive after they are shot down or crash, as well as offering special survival classes for an array of other government and military personnel, Col. Jeff White told U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

The Hueys are important for teaching trainees how to avoid enemy helicopters that might be searching for them, practicing evacuations with their special hoists, and sometimes locating trainees who get lost in the Colville National Forest, where some of the instruction takes place.

All other survival training units have some sort of helicopter units assigned to them, Fairchild officials noted. But if the four Hueys leave as planned, the Survival School – which is the Air Force’s largest facility for that type of training – will come up with “work-arounds,” they said.

“So you’re proceeding as if the helicopters are going to be gone in August?” McMorris Rodgers asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” replied White.

“Are there other options for helicopters in the area, with hoists?” she asked.

“No, ma’am,” White said.

The Air Force helicopters are also called in by law enforcement across the Inland Northwest for search and rescue operations when hikers, campers, snowmobilers or all-terrain vehicle riders get lost or injured in rugged backcountry. They’ve performed 613 such rescues since the helicopters arrived at Fairchild in the 1970s.

Among the things that make them valuable are the hoists that can lower a medical crewman or raise an injured person on a special stretcher, and infrared vision equipment that allows them to search at night.

In January, they rescued a father and son who had become stranded while snowmobiling north of Wallace.

Last October, a crew from the 36th was able to spot an Idaho woman who had flipped her ATV on a steep hillside in Latah County and was trapped underneath the vehicle. She was so far off the trail that searchers on the ground couldn’t see or hear her, but the helicopter crew spotted the wreck, lowered a medic, stabilized her, pulled her up on a stretcher and flew her to Deaconess Medical Center where she was treated for severe head and back trauma.

“Without you, what would’ve been her options?” McMorris Rodgers asked.

“She would’ve died, ma’am,” White replied.

McMorris Rodgers toured the hangar where the helicopters are housed, meeting many of the flight crews and about 20 civilian mechanics who maintain the aircraft under a special contract. As a thank you for her work to keep the unit at Fairchild, the civilian crew gave the pregnant congresswoman a miniature flight suit for the baby that’s due next month.

After the tour, McMorris Rodgers said she and other members of the state’s congressional delegation thought moving the helicopter squadron out of Fairchild was a bad idea “from the very beginning.”

“If anything, being here today reinforced the importance of these helicopters,” she said.

The delegation is trying several tactics, including amendments to Defense authorization and appropriations bills that order the Air Force to keep the helicopters where they are. Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne on the planned move when he appeared before a Senate subcommittee.

About the same time McMorris Rodgers was touring the helicopter hangar, Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell was sending Wynne another letter warning against removing the unit.

McMorris Rodgers said she was “cautiously optimistic” the helicopters would stay where they are.

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