Southern Utah University Aviation provided eyes in the sky during a search and rescue mission for a 77-year-old northern Utah man stranded in a remote area of Iron County on Jan. 15.
Members of the elderly individual’s family quickly reached out to the Iron County Sheriff’s Office after being unable to contact the man and discovering that he had failed to check into his hotel the night before the rescue.
The family disclosed the man’s intention to visit a mining claim in the Pinto Springs area of northwestern Iron County and the added complications of his recent knee surgery.
With the threat of freezing overnight temperatures increasing concerns, ICSO contacted SUU Aviation shortly after receiving the call to request assistance locating the man.
SUU Aviation assistant chief pilots Robert “Robby” Paul and Ryan DeJong were both at the SUU hangar at the time of the call and the other chief pilots determined that the pair would be the ones to assist the sheriff’s office.
“We’re just honored to be a part of [the rescue missions],” Paul said. “We all like [assisting], it’s an awesome change of pace.”
Paul and DeJong underwent preflight checks to prepare the Bell 407 aircraft to use for the search and awaited the arrival of an Iron County sheriff’s deputy who would ride with them and help relay information between the air and ground crews.
With the deputy in tow, the pilots directed the aircraft in the general direction of the mine provided to them by the family and the ICSO.
In a matter of minutes, the bright flash of a signal mirror provided the first indicator of the man’s location. The SUU pilots honed in on the source of the signal to find the elderly man’s white pickup truck becoming visible.
“I don’t know if it was a nature survival mirror or a mirror he pulled off his truck, but he signaled us and that’s how we were drawn to his location,” Paul said.
The air crew provided descriptions of the man’s location that ultimately led ground crews to him where they discovered the truck’s battery had died on the remote dirt road the day before.
Once located, the ICSO reported that “[the man] knew he would not have survived another night had no one located him.” He had food and water provisions, but the freezing temperatures increased the danger of his situation.
“The biggest thing that made this mission successful is that the gentleman we went after was prepared for the worst,” said Paul. “He had food, he had water, he had people that knew the general area that he was checking in with.”
This rescue mission is not the first for Paul or SUU Aviation. The program has assisted law enforcement and first responders in a variety of situations including high speed chases, crime scene imaging, wildfire warnings, search and locate and search and rescue missions like this one.
“We want people to know that there is a lot of good coming out of the helicopters making a lot of noise,” said Paul.
SUU Aviation has volunteered its assistance to law enforcement operations as requested and authorized by the Iron County sheriff. The program views the opportunities as “great flights for training and being able to give back to the community.”
According to Paul, SUU Aviation does more volunteer work during the summer than during the winter, but estimates that the program averages seven to eight missions per month.
With a high number of machines in the air at any given time, the ICSO can easily request and quickly receive eyes in the sky for a search-and-locate style mission.
If an SUU student and their instructor happen to be near the given location of a search and locate, the instructor is able to take over while the student obtains real-life experience. For some, it is the chance to participate in tasks that they hope to one day make a career doing.
“Our helicopter students are doing jobs like firefighting, disaster relief, aeromedical and things that are saving people’s lives and making a good impact,” Paul said.
The SUU Aviation program students and instructors are grateful for the chance to make an impact on the local community, Paul noting that it is a great way for the program to give back.
“We understand that we are a very large program and that there is a lot of noise,” Paul said. “But we want people to know that we are doing a lot of good as well.”
As the program grows so does the air fleet. The Bell 407 that Paul and DeJong used in their latest mission is one addition that will be a shared investment for both SUU Aviation and the ICSO.
The Bell 407 aircraft will provide the program with ample access to top-of-the-line law enforcement and rescue equipment and is prepped and ready to respond to any future needs.
“We’re not just the ‘noisy guys in the sky’,” Paul says. “We really care, we want to give back to the community.”
Story by: Mikyla Bagley
Photos courtesy of Robby Paul