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.
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.
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.