Here's Why That Helicopter Rescue With the Spinning 74-Year-Old Hiker Went So Nauseatingly Wrong

By Jennings Brown on at

By now, millions of people have seen the footage of the rescue mission that spiralled out of control.

Last Tuesday morning, a 74-year-old woman stumbled and suffered head and face injuries while hiking Piestewa Peak in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, in the US state of Arizona. But when the Phoenix Fire Department rescued her by airlifting her to a hospital, the suspended stretcher holding the injured woman twirled like a pinwheel in a hurricane.

Local Fox 10 Phoenix and KNXV captured the nauseating horror.

The barrage of replies to Fox 10's viral tweet of the rescue contain many questions: Is she okay?; why aren’t there more lines to stabilise the stretcher?; “Why she fucking spinning that fast as heck”?; and “why have I been laughing at this all damn day”?

The answer to the last question is because most of us are terrible people. The “why is she spinning” question is less straightforward.

But most importantly, the woman seems to be doing all right, as of Wednesday morning. During a Phoenix Fire Department news conference on Tuesday—organised partially in response to the online reaction—Phoenix Fire Captain Bobby Dubnow told reporters he spoke to the woman once she was secured to the helicopter after the whirlwind adventure.

“I kind of was able to get in her face a little bit, make sure her eyes were open and told her everything was going to be okay,” Dubnow said, adding that the woman was given medicine for dizziness and nausea once she arrived at the hospital, but was in stable condition and seemed to suffer no other effects from the spin.

The Phoenix Fire Department decided to rescue the woman using a helicopter after assessing the situation. “In this case, the crews decided the helicopter was going to be the best option,” Dubnow said to reporters. “Based on the patient’s age, the mechanism of her injury, the heat of the day, the terrain, the amount of work and time it would take her down in a big wheel or other means.”

But after a rescuer rappelled down from the helicopter, and secured the woman in a stretcher to a line, something went wrong.

Paul Apolinar, the Phoenix Police Department’s chief pilot, explained at the news conference that, as the basket holding the woman was pulled off the ground, the basket started to interact with the “rotor wash,” or the turbulence caused by the rotary wings. The hook attaching the basket to the wire is designed to spin—and spin it did.

Normally, an extra line prevents the basket from spinning out of control, but in this case—possibly because of strong winds—the line failed, and “eventually broke,” according to Derek Geisel, the operation’s rescue pilot. The crew brought the basket down, then up, in an effort to mitigate the spin.

After that didn’t help, Geisel flew forward. “Once we got to forward flight the spin got quite a bit less to the point where they were safely able to bring the patient up to the aircraft, and we could land,” Geisel said, at the conference, adding that the landing site was about a half mile from where the rescue occurred.

According to Apolinar, the Phoenix Fire Department has done 210 hoist rescues from mountains in the last six years, and this is the second time a crew has had a spinning patient.

Featured image: Screenshot: Fox 10 Phoenix (YouTube)

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