Ashland helicopter heroes behind Crater Lake rescue
Swift response and a local helicopter-rescue innovator’s proximity to Crater Lake may have made the difference between mishap and miracle last Sunday.
Ron Lewis, who rescued a 22-year-old man who had plunged about 1,300 feet into the Crater Lake caldera, said that en route to the national park emergency he expected to be picking up a body rather than rescuing an injured man in a precarious position.
“I would’ve expected it to be a recovery,” Lewis said. “That guy’s fortunate.”
Sgt. Shawn Richards said that he and other Jackson County Search and Rescue volunteers were still driving to Crater Lake from White City when the victim was saved.
The man, whose name has not been released, fell just after 2 p.m. Park rangers called Jackson County Search and Rescue for assistance about 3 p.m., and by 3:45 p.m. the victim was on his way to a hospital, according to Richards.
“These people call for help, and within an hour they’ve got a helicopter rescuing them,” Richards said.
Burl Brim, who owns Brim Aviation and co-owns Air Rescue Systems, said the National Guard is stationed at the north end of the state, the U.S. Coast Guard covers the coast, but “we really don’t have anybody on the south end of the state.”
Richards said Jackson County SAR’s partnership with ARS and Brim Aviation is unique. Elsewhere in Oregon, a helicopter rescue requires the local agency to first put in a request to the state, which then contacts the National Guard.
“It takes time to get through all the requests,” Richards said, adding that an available National Guard helicopter could be several hours away.
“We respond fast on calls,” Brim said.
Lewis said he didn’t have long to save the 22-year-old man, who was injured from the fall, suffering from hypothermia in the snow, and sitting in a precarious position on a slippery slope.
“He was in a bad way,” Lewis said.
Craig Morrison, Brim Aviation’s vice president of flight operations, piloted the MD 600 helicopter while ARS co-founder and former Ashland fire chief Bob Cockell operated the hoist, at one point extending the tether 273 feet, six feet from its full extension.
Lewis used an air-rescue vest engineered and manufactured by ARS in Ashland, designed to quickly secure a person by connecting three rings connected to the victim’s left and right sides and between their legs while the rescuer holds them in place.
Richards said the helicopter rescue was one of two performed last weekend by ARS and Brim Aviation. On Saturday, a skier needed to be extracted from Mount McLoughlin after suffering a knee injury.
The company runs shifts to ensure coverage 24 hours a day and through the weekend. Morrison estimated the company does about 15 helicopter rescues per year in Southern Oregon, though it does hundreds of operations and training runs for agencies across the country and around the globe.
“We’re ready to roll all the time,” Brim said.
Brim formed Brim Aviation in 1993 and ARS with Cockell in 2005. ARS provides training and equipment to state agencies such as the California Highway Patrol, Utah Highway Patrol, Minnesota State Police and the Kauai Fire Department’s Ocean Safety Division. In Oregon, Brim Aviation has a base in Astoria that employs 15, typically transporting ship captains to freighters.
The company is a global operation with a global clientele. Lewis, for example, is concluding a 30-day training with members of Shanghai police at the company’s Ashland headquarters. The company has European operations headquartered in Prague, Czech Republic, and serves agencies such as the British Military in the Falkland Islands, where about a dozen employees are stationed.
“We are so fortunate that Brim Aviation calls Ashland their headquarters,” Richards said, adding that the company’s rescuers have a wealth of experience similar to U.S. Coast Guard rescuers, though tailored for inland rescues.
“My personal feeling is on the inland side Brim Aviation is equal,” Richards said. “We’re lucky to live where we do, and we’re lucky we have that partner.”
— Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or firstname.lastname@example.org.