Guardian Angels: Air Force Reservists Save Mountain Climbers

Guardian Angels from the Air Force Reserve Command’s 304th Rescue Squadron joining local search and rescue agencies on Mount Hood, Oregon (Air Force photo).
Guardian Angels from the Air Force Reserve Command’s 304th Rescue Squadron joining local search and rescue agencies on Mount Hood, Oregon (Air Force photo).

Dodging falling rocks and ice, fighting off massive waves of dropping snow and clinging to ropes to narrowly escape death from an avalanche at 10,000 feet, hikers on Oregon’s Mount Hood did not have much time to survive. But somehow, a rescue unit with Air Force Reserve Command managed to locate and save the imperiled hikers, using search and rescue helicopters filled with trained Air Force reservists.

This mission is just one example of many that are gaining attention as Air Force Reserve Command prepares to commemorate its 70th anniversary.

It was in February of this year when a team of 15 reserve Airmen dropped rope lines, enabling three of four stranded hikers to safely descend from the mountain. Tragically, one of the four fell 1,000 feet and did not survive.

“Climbers are found frequently on [Mount Hood]. They use different rescue methods depending upon altitude, time of day and temperature,” Dr. Donald Boyd, Air Force Reserve Command historian, told in an interview.

The rescue crew, from Air Force Reserve Guardian Angel 304th Squadron, had little time to act before the hikers near the summit of Mount Hood became overwhelmed by the conditions. The crew also faced an extra challenge by operating at high altitudes. Thinner air at high altitudes makes it hard for rotor blades to properly “catch” the air and move easily. As a result, advanced piloting skills are needed when it comes to these kinds of mountain rescues.

Coordinating with Air Force leaders at command and control centers, some reservists dropped down the rope lines from the air, while others put on rescue gear and descended to the mountain itself to assist imperiled climbers.

Air Force reservists in the area are familiar with Mount Hood terrain, as they have assisted troubled climbers before. They train in the area for the specific purpose of being equipped and prepared for Mount Hood search and rescue missions, should they be called upon. In 2017, Air Force reservists saved a lost hiker in the Mount Hood National Forest who had survived five days alone in the wilderness.

Boyd explained how this incident reflects the long-standing mission of the Air Force Reserve, which seeks to complete humanitarian and combat missions in a manner fully equivalent to their active duty brethren. He added that reserve airmen are more experienced in recent years, given the massively increased deployment op-tempo that followed 9-11.

“Over the years, the challenge for reserve Airmen has, in some ways, been consistent but also changed. Airmen work on maintaining a balance between their civilian job and reserve duty, especially since 9-11 when more deployments came into play,” Boyd said.

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