“It was the most dangerous flying of their lives, but the crews of an Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook and UH-60 Black Hawk kept going back across the Creek Fire line, down into the smoke-filled valley and toward campers desperate for help.
They didn’t have to go. And as they approached the first fire ridge, each crew member had an opportunity to stop the mission. No one did.
‘When we arrived at the fire’s edge and we first we made a decision to enter in — that was a crew decision,’ said California National Guard Chinook pilot Chief Warrant Officer 5 Joseph Rosamond.
Each half mile, as visibility worsened, the crews checked back in. Could they see the next ridge? Smoke made it nearly impossible to see, but night vision goggles helped the pilots steer the aircraft from obstacles that were highlighted by embers and the outlines of flames. All were in agreement to press on.
When they got to Mammoth Pool they made another tough call. Chinooks have a normal troop carrying capacity of about 40, a Black Hawk, about a dozen. But there were so many more people who needed help, some with severe burns. They put the aircraft down as close as they could to the injured. Some flames got as close as 50 feet to them as men, women and children climbed in.
‘We were quickly running out of time, and with the severity of some of the injuries, they were running out of time as well,’ Rosamond said. ‘We decided then to pack as many people in as we could do. At that point our performance limitations were very, very close to the maximum capabilities of the aircraft.'”
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