First Responders

Check Out This Daring Helo Rescue Inside Arizona’s Sabino Canyon

March 10, 2022Noelle Wiehe
hiking Sabino Canyon

US Customs and Border Protection Aviation Enforcement Agent Cory Bishop aids an overheated hiker in Arizona’s Sabino Canyon Friday, March 4, 2022. US Customs and Border Protection photo.

Buffeted by strong winds, alone at high altitude, on a path that’s sometimes under a blazing sun and sometimes under the bone-chilling shadows of the Santa Catalina Mountains, the 25-year-old hiker in Arizona’s Sabino Canyon knew he needed help.

His call shortly after noon on Friday, March 4, got through to emergency dispatchers. He said he was weak, unable to walk another step down the Seven Falls Trail, vomiting — probably heat exhaustion.

When they arrived at the desert cliffs, Pima County Sheriff’s Department deputies determined they had to get the hiker to a hospital, but the gusts blowing through the valley and the rugged terrain made that impossible.

“He had just kind of gotten in over his head,” explained John Russell, an aviation enforcement agent with US Customs and Border Protection’s Aviation and Marine Operations Tucson Air Branch at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Sabino Canyon
A 25-year-old man hiking alone at high altitudes in Arizona’s Sabino Canyon, approximately 2.5 miles along the Seven Falls Trail northeast of Tucson, called emergency dispatchers when he showed signs of heat exhaustion Friday, March 4, 2022. US Customs and Border Patrol photo.

Pima County officials reached out to US Border Patrol’s Arizona Air Coordination Center to request a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter capable of hoisting a hiker out of the canyon. The problem was that Russell’s unit was down to one UH-60L, and it was going to be tricky getting it into the air.

The US Air Force in Tucson was performing its Heritage Flight spectacular at the airport, which meant the Black Hawk crew might need to halt the show and clear the traffic to scoot to the canyon.

But the crew made it happen. Scrambled at 1:15 p.m., they were hovering over the hiker by 1:25 p.m., Russell told Coffee or Die Magazine.

“That is a phenomenal turnaround time for an unprepared bird,” US Customs and Border Protection Arizona spokesperson John Mennell said.

Sabino Canyon
US Customs and Border Protection Aviation Enforcement Agent Cory Bishop rescues a 25-year-old hiker in Arizona’s Sabino Canyon Friday, March 4, 2022. Screenshot via US Customs and Border Protection video.

The deputies were right about the rugged terrain. With no place to land, the helicopter crew decided to turn to Russell, the agent on the hoist, telling him to “pretty much run the mission,” Russell said.

The crew spotted the best place to link up with the team below them, and Russell began lowering the crew’s rescue specialist, Aviation Enforcement Agent Cory Bishop. He carried an air-rescue vest and helmet for the hiker to protect him during the hoist back into the helicopter, if he could make it up.

Bishop found the hiker to be dehydrated and sunburned, but he could be safely winched into the helicopter, so the crew began hauling him up on a 280-foot cable. It’s one of the longest rescue lines in Arizona, and it comes in handy in the jagged peaks of the “Sky Island Forest” that rims the canyon.

“When you get 280 feet below the aircraft, you can almost not hear the aircraft anymore,” Russell said. “It’s kind of eerie.”

Roughly 25 minutes after arriving overhead, the helicopter crew had rescued the hiker and landed in a Sabino Canyon parking lot, where they handed the patient off to waiting paramedics.

“At that point, he was just happy to be out of the elements,” Russell said.

To Russell, it was all just part of a day’s work at Air and Marine Operations. They patrol the desert from above, hunting smugglers, but they prioritize rescues because lives are at stake. Russell said the biggest operation his crew joined was the response to Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 cyclone that devastated parts of Texas and Louisiana in 2017.

“When someone is in trouble, whether it be along the border or elsewhere throughout southern Arizona, citizenship, nationality, or immigration status is a nonissue,” Michael Montgomery, the director of Air Operations for the Tucson Air Branch, said in a prepared statement released after the Sabino Canyon rescue.

Read Next: Lost on the Grand Mesa: Inside the Daring Drive To Find Skier and Dog

Noelle Wiehe
Noelle Wiehe

Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
US: War Crimes on All Sides in Ethiopia's Tigray Conflict

The Biden administration announced Monday that it has determined all sides in the brutal conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.

March 20, 2023Associated Press
military pilots cancer rates
Higher Cancer Rates Found in Military Pilots, Ground Crews

In its yearlong study of almost 900,000 service members who flew on or worked on military aircraft b...

March 20, 2023Associated Press
whiskey pour
Veterans Lead the Way Among America’s Growing Craft Distilleries

American veterans are taking the lessons they learned in the military and changing the craft distilling industry.

March 20, 2023Mac Caltrider
military suicide veteran suicide
Military Moves To Cut Suicides, But Defers Action on Guns

In a memo released Thursday, Austin called for the establishment of a suicide prevention working gro...

March 17, 2023Associated Press
us military drills japan-south korea
US, Partners Stage Military Drills Amid Japan-South Korea Talks

The Sea Dragon 23 exercises that started on Wednesday will culminate in more than 270 hours of in-fl...

March 17, 2023Associated Press
leo jenkins a word like god
‘A Word Like God’: New Book From Army Ranger Leo Jenkins

In his latest poetry collection, Ranger-turned-writer Leo Jenkins turns away from war to explore cosmic themes of faith, fatherhood, and art.

March 16, 2023Mac Caltrider
us drone
Pentagon Video Shows Russian Jet Dumping Fuel on US Drone

The Pentagon on Thursday released video of what it said was a Russian fighter jet dumping fuel on a ...

March 16, 2023Associated Press
10th Mountain Division
‘Climb to Glory’ — A History of the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division

From the mountains of Italy to the mountains of Afghanistan, the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division built its legendary reputation by fighting in some of the most inhospitable places in the world.

March 16, 2023Matt Fratus
  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
  • Request a Correction
  • Write for Us
  • General Inquiries
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved