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Helicopter pilot's precision landings help save injured hiker

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 19 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

A rescue helicopter perches precariously on a pinnacle Tuesday during the rescue of a hiker who fell into a slot canyon in Washington County.

Lt. Cory Pulsipher, Washington County Sheriff's Office

The third time Terry Mercer landed his helicopter Tuesday morning, he felt it rock backward, a little like a teeter-totter.

"I thought I had about 36 inches of skid room, but it turns out it was more like 10 or 12," Mercer said. "It was not a good feeling, but that's when I realized how critical it was to be precise."

He fired up the blades and repositioned the 37-foot aircraft on the 25-foot-wide pinnacle. That was his fourth landing on the rock, and before the three-hour rescue mission was complete, he would land on it eight more times, ferrying search-and-rescue crews to the site of an injured hiker on Red Mountain in Washington County.

"This is probably one of the more satisfying landings I've done," said Mercer, who flew for the Navy for 25 years and has flown for the Utah Highway Patrol for the past nine. "It took a lot of effort and coordination."

Mercer scoured that same slot canyon three times the day before, looking for Jim Williamson, a trail runner who went missing Sunday afternoon. From the sky, he was nowhere to be seen.

"It was a hot day, so it's possible he crawled under some brush down there," Mercer said.

Police said Williamson checked in with a friend around noon Sunday and told her he was just above the Three Ponds area in Red Mountain and was going to head back to his car. He told her he was low on water but thought he could make it back, police said.

Then, somewhere along the way, Williamson fell off the trail and landed in the narrow slot canyon.

By 4 p.m. Sunday, it was clear to people on the ground that something was wrong. Williamson was unreachable on his phone, and he had not checked in.

"By then, we knew he had gone missing," said Chief Deputy Rob Tersigni of the Washington County Sheriff's Office, which coordinated the rescue efforts.

The sheriff's department dispatched search-and-rescue teams, and Mercer was brought in as the lone pilot to deposit them strategically on Red Mountain. The 20-member team focused on the slot canyons near Gunsight Trail all day Monday.

On his way to the summit with a hiking team Tuesday morning, an officer with Washington County Search and Rescue pointed to the slot canyons.

"He signaled me and said, 'Let's check that slot out,' " Mercer said. "I flew it three times yesterday, but we're flying over it, and they saw him down there."

Williamson was in the depths of the slot canyon, hundreds of feet below.

Mercer dropped the first team by rope and flew back to pick up another crew. He needed to land close to the site to unload the ropes teams.

An officer pointed to the pinnacle jetting up nearby and told Mercer he had hiked it before and thought they could land on it.

"I wouldn't have ever considered it if the guy hadn't hiked out there before," Mercer said.

In central and northern Utah, Life Flight helicopters with hoists are able to extract injured hikers like Williamson without landing.

The air ambulance contractor, which services Intermountain Healthcare, is the only civilian operator in the country that performs hoist rescues, said spokesman Jess Gomez, adding that such rescues can drastically reduce the danger posed to crews.

Washington County is out of range for Life Flight's helicopters. The air ambulance operator plans to put its first helicopter at Dixie Regional Medical Center in 2011, but initially it will not have hoist capabilities.

If there is a significant need for one, Life Flight would be inclined to provide it, said chief pilot Kent Johnson. But the amount of training required adds heavily to the weight of the decision, he said. Hoist crews, Johnson said, need to train a minimum of three times per year.

UHP pilots like Mercer are the best option for hikers missing in the southern part of the state. They are able to perform maneuvers, like dropping crews from rope lines, that civilian contractors cannot, Johnson said.

Tuesday was a windless morning, which made Mercer's landing on the pinnacle possible.

At one point during the mission, the helicopter was perched on the rock for more than an hour. The ropes team had to thread Williamson, who was on a stretcher, along a rope fixed to the helicopter's skid.

Once crews had loaded Williamson into the helicopter, Mercer flew him to Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George. He was in critical but stable condition, Tersigni said. Williamson was missing some of his teeth and was dehydrated, but he had not broken any bones.

Mercer headed back to the slot canyon to shuttle the rest of the crew off the mountain.

"We had 16 rescuers on the hill this morning, and to get that guy out of the slot, it took all 16 of them. It was a real team effort," he said.

e-mail: mgonda@desnews.com

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