Four Were Saved

In the early part of the 1960s, the US Air Force was installing InterContinental Ballistic Missile sites in many parts of the United States. To support the missile sites with the quick transport of security, launch, and maintenance teams, the Air Force deployed H-19B helicopters and crews to each Air Force Base with missiles assigned. At least one aircraft and crew were on call seven days a week. In addition to meeting the needs of the missile squadrons, the aircraft and crews were available for search and rescue missions, if the need arose. In 1964, the need for such a capability was called into action.

In the Hudson River Gorge:

One hundred miles to the south of Plattsburg Air Force Base, New York, a tragedy was starting to unfold. A father had taken two of his young sons for a boat cruise on the Hudson River, near the town of Corinth, New York. Suddenly, the boat’s outboard motor failed. The father tried to restart the motor, but was not able to get it running. In the meantime, the boat was being swept along by the river, swollen with recent snow melt. It was headed for a dam. The father weighed his options: Be swept over the dam in the boat, or take their chances in the water. Everyone was wearing life jackets, so he grabbed his sons and leaped into the water.

The power of the water rushing over the dam was tremendous. The turbulence pushed and pulled the young father as he and his children dropped thirty feet or so to the swirling water at the base of the dam. The turbulent waters spun him around and pulled the older boy from his arms and swept him downstream, where unfortunately he did not survive the ordeal. Desperately, the father reached out with one arm and managed to grab onto the side of a large rock ledge that rose out of the river about 100 feet below the dam. He was able to climb out of the raging water clinging to his youngest son. He was exhausted when they made it onto the rock, clear of the torrent racing below.

On shore, the event had not gone unnoticed. A member of the local Archery Club attached some fishing line to an arrow, shot it out and over the rock located 150 feet from shore. It was grabbed by the father, who used it pull several ropes across the gap. He found an old ring bolt left over from the construction of the dam, and secured the ropes to the rock. Two young men from the community shinnied along the ropes to the rock, bringing food, water, and warm clothing to the survivors.

Meanwhile, the New York State Police were now on the scene, and they decided that trying to bring everybody back across the rope was just too dangerous. They contacted Plattsburg Air Force Base and asked for assistance.

At the Air Force Base:

Sunday, April 19th, 1964, was a sunny, warm spring day in northern New York State. Late that afternoon, Captain Bob, a helicopter pilot assigned to Plattsburg Air Force Base, had gotten his bar-B-Q grill out of the garage, cleaned it up and was getting ready to cook some hamburgers for his family’s dinner. It was about 5:30, and as he lit the charcoal, the telephone rang.

“Hello, this is Captain Bob” he said as he answered the telephone.

“Good Afternoon, Sir. This is the dispatcher at Base Operations. The New York State Police have requested helicopter assistance for a possible rescue mission. The Division Commander has approved their request. I have alerted Maintenance to get a helicopter ready. Who is on standby with you?”

“Call Captain Pete, and tell him I’ll meet him at Base Operations. I should be there in about ten minutes.”

 "Roger, Sir, I’ll do that. Goodbye.”

At Base Operations, the two pilots began their flight plan. Corinth was about 100 nautical miles away, and with the current light winds, the flight time would be about one and a half hours each way.  The full fuel on board the H-19 B would provide four and a half hours of flight time, so they would have an hour to accomplish the rescue and still have some reserve fuel, if they needed it. If necessary, SaratogaCountyAirport was only 30 miles south, and there was fuel there. Their plan completed, they handed it to the dispatcher and headed for the flight line.

Maintenance had parked the assigned H-19B helicopter in front of Base Operations. The H-19 was a medium sized helicopter, slightly more than 62 feet long and it stood just over 13 feet tall. The cabin area was fairly large, and was designed to carry twelve passengers. At the aircraft, Staff Sergeant Frank was finishing up his duties as the Crew Chief, and Staff Sergeant George, who was assigned as the medic to the mission, was checking out the medical equipment. The pilots completed their preflight and climbed into the cockpit. Captain Bob was in the right seat, as the Aircraft Commander, and Captain Pete in the left seat as the first pilot. Engine start and rotor engagement was normal, as were all preflight checks.


H-19BCredit: US Air Force Photo

Pressing the radio transmit key, Captain Pete said: “Tower, this Air Force Helicopter 980, ready for departure.”

 “Roger Helicopter 980, cleared for take off to the South, Have a good flight”

 “Helicopter 980 is airborne” said Captain Bob, as he applied power for the take off, and at 6:15 P.M., they headed south.

 The Helicopter Arrives:

It was night when they arrived over Corinth an hour and fifteen minutes later. The first thing they saw was a baseball field, lit up with automobile headlights, and the flashing lights of several police cars. Just north of the field was a dam, with several flood lights shining down river into the gorge. After a brief swing around the area, Captain Bob descended into the baseball field, and touched down. After landing, he shut down the engine and got out to get a briefing from the State Police.

 He was told there were three adults and a small child stranded on a rocky ledge about 100 feet below the dam. Several flood lights provided some light to the area. Asking about power lines, always of great threat to helicopters, he was told there were lines on the dam, lines along the road just south of the river, and some high tension lines crossing the river about a half mile down stream from the dam. He was told the hills on both sides of the river were fairly steep, so he would have to drop into the gorge, then climb out again. He told the Police that he would need to be in a high hover, and probably would only be able pick up one person at a time. The child would have to be held by his Dad.

Rotor RPM is the life force of a helicopter. Take off, climbs or level flight are controlled by the pitch of the rotor blades. Sometimes if the pitch of the blades is set too high, the rotor rpm drops off and the helicopter will descend. This is not something you want to happen in a hazardous environment.

 Before starting the rescue portion of the mission, Captain Bob briefed his crew: “Pete, I want you to keep an eye on the instrument panel, make sure the rotor RPM stays up. I’ll be concentrating on looking outside and keeping us in place. Frank, I’ll use the search light to light up the rock as we come in, then I’ll put it on the opposite side of the river. The landing light will be on, and should light up the rock when I am in a hover. Let me know what is going on under us. Any questions?” There were none, so once more the crew climbed into the helicopter, and set out to complete their mission.

The recovery:

Corinth DamCredit: Google Earth


 The first pass into the gorge was an orientation look at the situation, evaluating the approach, the actual rock, the water flow, the power available to the helicopter, then across the river, and up the hill on the far side, until they were over the top. A second pass was made further evaluating the conditions they were encountering. “Has anyone seen anything we were not briefed on?” asked Capt Bob. “If not, we are go for real!”

 Captain Bob started his approach with a fairly steep angle, shooting for a spot just short of the rock, and about ten feet above it. Just above the rock, strong wind gusts, created by the turbulent water rushing by the rock, buffeted the helicopter, pushing it off to the side. Captain Bob increased power and executed a missed approach. “I wasn’t expecting that!” he said, “I’ll try a different approach point.”

 This time, he started in a little farther down river, making the approach more towards the dam, instead of parallel to it. As he came into the hover, the turbulence was still very strong, but not as bad. Holding the helicopter steady was difficult, requiring constant control inputs.

 “Hoist is going down” Frank said,” Five feet below the aircraft, now ten feet below, hoist is on the ground. Survivor is putting the collar on, the child is putting his arms around the dad’s neck, legs around his waist, and the dad has clasped his hands under his child’s butt. I have thumbs up from one of the survivors. Taking up hoist cable slack, weight is on the hoist.”

 ”RPM is good, power is good” Interjected Captain Pete.

 “Survivors ten feet below the helicopter,” continued Frank,” five feet below, survivors are at the door, survivors are inside. Cabin is secure.”

 Captain Bob increased power and rotor blade pitch to leave the high hover above the rock and climb out of the gorge. As the helicopter slowly gained altitude and airspeed, Captain Pete continued to watch the instrument panel and reported: “RPM is good, power approaching Maximum, RPM still good, power at Max, RPM still good, airspeed increasing, altitude increasing, RPM remains good. All gauges are good.”

 Once clear of the hill top, Captain Bob turned towards the ball field. As he landed, an ambulance pulled up about 50 feet away, and several police ran to the side of the helicopter and helped the father and son out through the door and into the ambulance. As soon as they were clear, the helicopter took off for another pass at the rock. This approach and pickup was identical to the first, and another survivor was lifted out and brought to the baseball field. As he headed back for the last survivor, Captain Bob asked Pete: “Do you want to make this pick up?” Pete shook his head, NO! Once again the steep approach, the turbulence buffeting the helicopter, and then holding a high hover while the hoist was sent down. A thumbs up signal and the last survivor was lifted out and delivered to the ball field.

Mission Successful:

After a brief stay at the ball field where the mission was discussed with the State Police, it was time to go home. A quick check of the fuel tanks indicated there was still two hours of flying time available. His flight suit drenched with perspiration from the workout flying the helicopter under the adverse conditions, Captain Bob turned to his first pilot: “Take us home, Pete!”

 On this date, four more names were added to the long list of those saved by helicopters.