Pace: The ins and outs of Camelback Mountain air rescues

Phoenix Fire Department officials lay out necessary items for a mountain rescue. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

How many helicopter rescues occur on Camelback Mountain, and how close can helicopters fly over houses?

In 2016, there were 84 rescue responses with 86 individuals rescued at Camelback Mountain. The helicopter hoist was used 41 times, and there were 28 two-skid landings. Helicopter lights also were used to assist lost hikers off the mountain at night.

Julie Pace

In 2016, two fatalities occurred on Camelback Mountain. The rescue helicopter was dispatched to recover the bodies. It takes about 18 minutes from hangar to hangar to address Camelback Mountain responses.

Paradise Valley Police Chief Peter Wingert and the ACOPS Committee invited the Phoenix Fire and Police Mountain Rescue Team to discuss protocols and safety involving hiker rescues on Camelback Mountain. Lt. Scott Sowerwine (field operations) and Sgt. Paul Apolinar (pilot) of Phoenix Police Department and Fire Department, along with three others attended.

The Phoenix rescue team has two helicopters. One is a blue patrol helicopter and the other is a twin red and white helicopter. The twin red and white helicopter has twin engines, which makes it safer and it is quieter and has hoisting abilities. In 2016, the twin engine helicopter reported 163 hours of air time.

There is a regional rescue team for other mountains that the Phoenix fire, air and police department assist. All pilots are police officers. It is a unique and collaborative effort between medical, fire, and police to have this skilled team available to the community. They can perform services on a patient-based analysis, along with conditions and needs.

A pilot and an observer man the forward passenger compartment in the helicopter and the crew chief occupies the rear passenger compartment. To serve on the helicopter team, applicants generally have at least seven years’ experience and 2,000 air hours before being allowed to perform mountain rescues. Some of the protocols used are consistent with Coast Guard protocols.

Landings and take-offs are still the largest risk regarding helicopter usage. The fire department often is on foot going up the mountain, while the air support is assisting.

Drone incursion is a serious safety issue for the helicopters. It is difficult to detect drones.
For safety reasons, it may be helpful to limit recreational drones being used on Camelback given the number of rescues that this team is performing. A drone could cause a helicopter to crash on houses below. National parks already prohibit drones for safety reasons.

Airplanes have a 2,000 foot height restriction above houses. Helicopters have no legal limit regarding the heights they need to fly, which is why they sometimes are low to the ground or houses. Helicopters try to stay at 300-500 feet, and they circulate and avoid hovering, but their work is driven by patient needs and conditions.

Camelback Mountain is a controlled air space. The air rescue team does communicate regularly with the tourist scenic air helicopters so they are not in the same airspace at the same time.

The team and ACOPS committee members discussed ways to minimize hiker rescues. As a result, ACOPS provided town resorts the flyer “Take a Hike, Do It Right.” We are all proud that Camelback Mountain is iconic and hiking on it is a sought after activity in Arizona. Locals and visitors should know the risks of hiking Camelback, including lack of water and a misunderstanding of the trail risks. Trailhead signs remind hikers about the amount of water needed and to consider electrolytes based on heat in Arizona.

ACOPS and the rescue team discussed the mutual aid arrangements among the police departments in the Valley. Phoenix Police and Fire are proud that they are the only model in the country that works together instead of having separate units. This improves efficiency and enhances communication and a collaborative effort to benefit all of the community.

Mutual aid agreements allow municipalities to share services such as the rescue helicopter.
The Phoenix Police and Fire Air Rescue Team were professional, skilled, and possess high technical expertise. Safety is a foremost concern in their operations.

Chief Wingert and the ACOPS Committee thanked the Air Rescue Team for their work and for taking time to educate us about their operations.

Editor’s note: Ms. Pace is a member of Paradise Valley Town Council and is chairwoman of ACOPS

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