A normal holiday weekend turns into a rescue for the record books for Stockton, California based Chinook and Black Hawk crews.
What started as a typical holiday long weekend for Chief Warrant Officer 5 Joseph Rosamond and his crew would end with the rescue of several hundred people and a story that will go down in the history books as one of the most dramatic rescues during a fire in recent history. CW5 Rosamond, a 23-year veteran and flight instructor, was relaxing at home when he and other members of his crew received notification that there was a fast-moving fire in the Fresno County area, and they may need to activate to assist. The Creek Fire was moving at such a rapid rate that there was a high likelihood that holidaymakers in the Mammoth Pools area would become trapped as the fire moved over several ridges cutting off campers’ chances of escape.
Rosamond and his crew were activated at 4:30 pm by Colonel David Hall, commander of the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade. The crews were given orders to ready their CH-47F along with a UH-60M Black Hawk and departed for the area of Mammoth Pools that sits along the San Joaquin River in the Sierra National Forest. As the crew began the flight that took just over an hour to make, updates were being forwarded to the crew, giving them a total of seven different GPS coordinates where people were supposed to be found that needed rescue.
Entering the Fire Line
When the crews of the CH-47 and UH-60 were cleared through the fire TFR area by air attack for the Creek fire, it became immediately apparent to the flight crews the urgency of the rescue effort they were about to undertake. The San Joaquin River was below them as they crested a mountain range. However, it was not visible through the dense smoke and flames that had already crested all ridges in the area, leaving the burned brush in its wake and embers floating in the sky as the fire continued to consume everything in its path.
For CW5 Rosamond and his crew, co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brady Hlebain, and flight engineers Sgt. George Esquivel and Sgt. Cameron Powell, there were several complications as they arrived, one being the presence of an existing air attack operation still currently underway as they arrived. Their timing, however, worked in their favor, as their arrival coincided with dusk, and the last of the aerial firefighting efforts wound down quickly after their arrival as crews limited by daytime-only operations returned to base.
For the crews of the Chinook and Black Hawk, their work had just begun. They began a systematic search of the area, checking off several of the GPS coordinates given, and discounting others where the terrain would have been impossible for many people to gather. After 45 minutes in the area, Rosamond and his crew were about to hit a stroke of luck
“We start searching the shoreline, we look out to our 10 o’clock or so. And we see a bunch of flashing lights. And at first I’m like, is that fire? Or is that something else? It was hazard lights and vehicle headlights. So we’re like, okay, that’s where they are. So that saves us a lot of time with just searching the shoreline.” Rosamond and the CH-47 crew spotted an unusual light amongst the many flickering fires on the ground. It was the flashing hazard lights of a pickup truck gathered with a large group of campers who were awaiting rescue at the Mammoth Pools reservoir boat ramp.
As the two aircraft approached the boat ramp slowly, Rosamond and his crew faced several obstacles. The first was the boat ramp’s steep grade and trying to land the massive CH-47 Chinook on an uphill incline, the second being the loose ground around the boat ramp and the possibility of a brownout situation on landing. Not to mention the strong possibility of small rocks being thrown around as the massive Chinook rotor blades displaced large amounts of ground clutter, dirt, and dust.
Based on the urgency of the approaching flames and the danger it posed to campers in the area, Rosamond and his crew decided to attempt a landing “We approached the boat ramp, and we browned out from the sand. My fly engineers called us down and over to a spot that was going to be wide enough. We ended up landing on that thing with a 13 degree upslope and got it kind of squirrely for a second as the first touch, we started rolling back a little bit, so we had to bring it back up, reset the brakes and try it again. But by that time, we had blown a lot of the sand away. We had visual again, so we finished the landing, and then I just told the guys, okay, start loading them up, start, you know, get as many people as you can.” The crew began loading dozens of campers, and their animals aboard the Chinook as the Black Hawk landed nearby and began doing the same.
While most people, and even most Chinook pilots, believe that their aircraft can carry extreme loads, the Stockton Guard crew were about to put that theory to the test. A Chinook weighs in at 34,000 pounds when full of fuel, with almost half of that as a useful payload at 16,000 pounds, tipping the max gross weight to 50,000 pounds. While the first load of campers out was relatively normal and full of women and children, the second load of people consisted mainly of men, packed to the helicopter’s rafters, to the point that the loadmaster was unable even to close the tail ramp.
As CW2 Hlebain lifted the Chinook off the pavement, he experienced something he had never experienced in his career; the aircraft was struggling to gain altitude, which he stated is something any Chinook pilot is not used to, forcing the team of himself and Rosamond to revert to early flight training knowledge and perform a level acceleration technique for takeoff that used translational lift to carry them into the air “That torque meter was way up towards the top of the tape, and the whole aircraft is shaking worse than I’ve ever felt before, so we didn’t have the power to climb very well. We get used to having all this excess power. And when we don’t have it, it’s, it’s odd for us.”
With the helicopter crammed to capacity, Rosamond estimated that on the second lift, there were between 65-75 people filling the rear of the aircraft at the time the helicopter began its approach to Fresno airport were ambulances and concerned family members waited. As the helicopter descended, the crew talked through another issue that had arisen during their landing checklist. Due to its abundance of power, the Chinook is usually landed straight down, or in a “max performance” landing profile, but with the amount of weight being carried, the crew decided to do a roll on landing to ensure they did not get anywhere close to the edge of the power curve on landing.
This, however, was complicated further when the loadmaster confirmed that there were so many people on board that it was impossible to close the rear ramp required for a run-on landing, so crews were forced to push the helicopter to the edge of its capabilities as they came into land performing an in-ground effect deceleration to get the helicopter on the ground safely with as much weight as was being carried at the time.
“Even once we were on the ground, you could notice the difference; it was like flying an entirely different aircraft. Usually, the Chinook steers on a dime, with as much weight as we were carrying on that second run, it was like trying to steer a school bus without power steering.”
In addition to the Chinook carrying at times 65 or more people, the Black Hawk involved in the rescue effort was also packed, carrying out 22 people per load, equating to the rescue of a total of 373 people and 27 animals from the Mammoth Pools reservoir that Memorial Day weekend, leaving only two people behind, who were determined to stay to guard all of the campers property left behind at the boat ramp.
The following week for Rosamond and his crew were spent helping on other fires in the area until he was told the following Saturday by Colonel Hall that his team and aircraft needed to be at McClellan Air Force Base by 10 am the next morning. Knowing that the rescue they had performed was out of the ordinary and that it had gained substantial media attention in the past week, Rosamond assumed that he and his crew were likely in line for a commendation from the Army National Guard. After arriving on-site, the next morning Rosamond realized this was not the standard commendation appearance he was expecting.
“We get to McClellan and meet with Major General Beavers. That’s when he let us know we were going to be getting an award from the President of the United States.” While floored at the time at the enormity of the situation, when asked if they wanted to know what the award was, the flight crews decided they wanted it to be a surprise; alas, that was not to be as a White House aide accidentally let it slip during preparations for the award that the crews would be receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross, the most significant award that is awarded to flight crews.
Later that day, the award ceremony was attended by President Trump, California Governor Gavin Newsome, and local media. Rosamond recalled “It was a great experience. We got to receive our awards in front of our families. For me personally and for my fellow crew members, it was a great day. We were just doing our jobs, but it was nice to be recognized, and a huge surprise to see how much recognition when you are presented the award by the Commander in Chief.”
Speaking with incredible humility about the bravery shown by the flight crews of both the Chinook and Black Hawk involved in this, one of the biggest airlift rescues from a fireground in history, Rosamond stated when asked about the potential dangers involved in this kind of rescue replied “Well, there were people down there that needed our help, we all joined this role to help people, so that’s what we did. We had to try, and it worked out. We had some concerns along the way, but our training kicked in and we overcame the issues we had to get these people out safely.”