F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. --
The snow was rolling in over the mountain top and it was going to be a white Christmas somewhere, but in those mountains sat four snowmobilers, unbeknownst to anyone, desperate to be rescued.
Most of the F.E. Warren Air Force Base’s 37th Helicopter Group Airmen were at Christmas Eve gatherings. Some were planning for Santa’s arrival, when suddenly matching pajamas, cookies, wrapping presents and holiday cheer came to a screeching halt.
*ring ring* *ring ring*
9-1-1 what’s your emergency?
A call went out for any volunteers to give up their Christmas to help save four lives and at 8 p.m. a helicopter flew off to begin search and rescue procedures in Snowy Range.
By the time the helicopter arrived to the mountain range the winter storm had encapsulated the area. The clouds were low and the visibility was minimal.
The helicopter crew tried to get to the last known location of the four snowmobile riders, but the weather conditions were extreme. Due to the conditions, the helicopter crew was unable to make headway on Christmas Eve and returned to base.
Bad weather is magnified at night with goggles because any ambient light reflects off the snowflakes and now there are globs of light opposed to unique flakes falling.
“It’s like Star Wars when they go to hyperspace," said Capt. Isaac Fifield, 37th Helicopter Squadron flight commander.
Santa had just come, but the alarms were already blaring in the homes of the volunteers. They were up early to spend Christmas with their families, but were soon off to plan the rescue operation for the day.
By daybreak a Facebook page was set up with information on the four missing men. From there the flight crew was able to gather the men were fairly avid snowmobilers and outdoorsmen, along with their last known clothing and snowmobile description.
After a delayed takeoff, the second day of searching began, but still posed several weather and altitude concerns.
“If it’s bright and you can’t see and you slam into the mountain, you are just as dead as hitting the mountain in the dark,” said Maj. Christopher Karins, 37th Helicopter Squadron director of operations.
Due to the Facebook page there were more nonofficial search teams than official and as Christmas went on, the footprint of the ground teams expanded.
By starting at the last known location, the helicopter performed a zig-zag pattern, but about 10 minutes into the search a blown over trail was found that piqued the crew’s interest. The trail was off the original search plan, but with a gut instinct, the crew flew down the valley anyway.
“Halfway down I was ready to turn around because we were almost to the end of the valley with another mountain in front of us,” said Lt. Col. John Beurer, 582nd Helicopter Group deputy commander.
Moments later the crew saw tracks. Were they from snowmobiles or animals? The helicopter was too high to tell.
“From the other side of the aircraft the crew looks over and sees a guy in a tree waving us down,” said Beurer. “No one in their right mind would climb up to this ridge to have a picnic, so we knew it was the lost snowmobilers.”
The four men were spotted north of their last known point, but they were not out of the woods yet. A storm was rolling in, they were at least 10 miles away from the ground team and the snow was already waist deep.
In attempt to rescue the snowmobilers, the crew assessed the only place to land and dump gear was over 10 miles away and after previously landing in white out conditions, the team knew it was not a feasible option.
“With an excellence approach from the pilot, we landed there once, but knew not to repeat it,” said Beurer.
With that decision, the crew returned to the four snowmobilers to provide a little hope. One of the pilots had a weighted flag, wrote a note on it and tied it to a lunch box with all their snacks and drinks.
The note said:
“Sorry boys we are not going to be able to take you out today, our helicopter is really old. Milk the fire, stay put, help is on the way. I’ve passed your location to the ground team. Merry Christmas.”
The helicopter flew in slow over the men, creating a vortex of snow and dropped the box in a set of boot prints.
Then the helicopter appeared to begin falling out of the sky and the alarms began to blare. The aircraft was receiving 100 percent power, but they were just running out of fuel. After getting to a suitable altitude they were able to level out and make their way to the airport.
Upon arriving in Laramie, Bob Skinner came in on Christmas, opened the airport and provided the crew a quick fuel stop. Although the fuel stop was only 27 minutes, the snowy weather had returned and engulfed the mountain.
The snow gusts seemed like they were coming from every direction. The crew could not find an opening. It became apparent the thickest part of the storm was where the four men and ground team were located and due to the lack of ability to assist from the air, the crew decided to return to Cheyenne.
“Every once in a while I would take a slight turn to the right to check the weather,” said Beurer. “It was quite deflating to not be out there supporting the ground team.”
Although the crew from F.E. Warren could no longer assist, the ground team was still fighting to get to the coordinates provided. However, the storm became increasingly intense and the ground teams were pulled out Christmas night.
On Dec. 26, 2018 the ground teams began the rescue efforts again. Helicopter crews from F.E. Warren AFB and the Wyoming Army National Guard were dispatched, but the storm had not let up enough on the mountain range and they were unable to join the rescue attempts.
Eventually, it was determined the men would have to be rescued by foot due to the terrain. Once the ground team was able to reach the provided coordinates, they along with the four snowmobilers trekked back to the parking lot where the men left their truck four days prior.
The rescue was successful and the four men escaped the Snowy Mountain with minor injuries and are back home, safe in South Dakota.
Thank you to the men and women at F.E. Warren AFB that volunteered their time during Christmas to ensure the well-being of four snowmobilers in Albany County.
A special thanks to Bob Skinner for opening the airport to take care of our helicopter crew.
Additionally the search and rescue was a success due to the efforts of the Albany and Carbon County Sheriffs Department.
Finally, the whole operation would not have been successful without a few select Airmen:
Lt. Col. John Beurer, pilot
Tech. Sgt. Ronnie Gentile, aircraft crew
Capt. Matthew Uy, doctor
Master Sgt. Christopher Capistron, aircraft crew
Capt. Isaac Fifield, pilot
Tech. Sgt. Marlyn Daust, weather
Master Sgt. Robert Rath, weather
Rodney Battle, maintenance
Brian Wilkes, maintenance
Robert Johnson, maintenance
Clifton Cherry, flight equipment