Tales from the Bonfire - Training for Para-Rescue

by Doug Garr | D-2791 | New York, New York

On February 6, 1972, I took off in a Skyvan from Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and headed about 40 minutes north to Forest Lake. It was jump number 439 and different from all the rest. I was a young editor on assignment for Popular Science magazine to write a story about making a training jump with the Minnesota Para-Rescue Team. This was a unique group of volunteer emergency medical technicians, all of whom were active skydivers.

Our plan was to fly over a remote, desolate area with limited access and drop a few snowmobiles, a stretcher and first-aid gear to perform a “rescue” of a team member who was injured and stranded far from immediate help. There was no other team like this in the U.S., and I felt they deserved some publicity. They all had advanced Red Cross certificates, and most of the members were qualified first-aid instructors. Together they had around 9,000 hours of medical, snowmobiling and skydiving experience. The first challenge was finding the DZ, which was tougher than at a conventional demo where the ground crew usually popped a smoke grenade and drew a large X. (Remember, there were no cell phones or handheld GPS devices in 1972.)
When we located the target area at around 500 feet, which was exit altitude for all the heavy gear but not the jumpers, we estimated the wind speed and direction. Two team members, Jim Hovda and Gil Mierva, explained that the lower the better, because the snowmobiles had two 28-foot cheapos (modified military rounds), and they didn’t want them to land too far from the “victim.”

The hairiest part was jump run for the gear, which I thought would be routine. Just after we had secured the static lines for the snowmobiles and stretchers, one of the two Arctic Cat snowmobiles jostled when we hit some turbulence. The tie-down webbing on it had gone slack, and in trying to secure it, someone nearly went out the door with a 400-pound machine. We managed to grab him and the snowmobile. Eventually, we rolled the snowmobiles out, and the cargo chutes opened uneventfully. They landed near the target.

The wind chill chart reported that it was “extremely cold.” Why was I surprised? This was the dead of winter in Minnesota. Exit altitude would be about 10 degrees below zero. I had been told to layer up for dangerous temperatures, and I was dressed in serious cold-weather ski clothing. We never shut the cargo door, and my goggles kept icing up.

Normally, you’d drop a wind-drift indicator (those yellow streamers we used to determine the spot), but since time was critical during a real rescue operation, we decided to forego it and eyeball it. We climbed to 3,600 feet, and I was surprised that they asked me to spot for the five of us, though the senior skydiver on the plane was Dick Wagaman, who had 1,800 jumps. I didn’t tell them it was my first leap out of a Skyvan. So I flattened myself on the floor in that awkward position where you look out the back and still think you can see the heading. I yelled out a single correction—10 degrees left, purely a guess—stood up and out we went.

We were jumping conventional gear for its day, backpack rigs with spring-loaded pilot chutes and belly-wart reserves. (I had a Mini-System with a Para-Commander and a 24-foot steerable reserve.) I did about a 10-second delay, dumped and had a hesitation (fairly common in its day), the pilot chute burbling on my back for a few seconds until I could shake it off.
Everyone landed nearby in several inches of virgin snow, and the team jettisoned gear without field packing and rushed to the crash-dummy victim. They examined and “stabilized” him, got him into the stretcher, rigged it to one of the snowmobiles, and off they went, presumably to a waiting ambulance. Aggregate time for the rescue—from visual contact to evacuation—was just over 30 minutes. They considered this an excellent result.

One half of the team stayed behind to continue the exercise by camping out overnight. I was offered a ride into town, but I thought it would be poor form to wussy out. So I stayed. (I don’t recommend winter camping unless it’s absolutely necessary.) We didn’t even have tents. I am still shivering from the thought.

The team never actually needed to perform a skydive-in rescue, but they helped dozens of competitors with medical aid at snowmobile events over the years and remained active through the mid-1970s. I recently tracked down the team’s coordinator, Jim Hovda, and he told me that many Minnesota towns developed snowmobile rescue teams, and so there was less of a need for their services. “We filled a gap for a long time,” Hovda said, “and then the small-town rescue operations put us out of business, which was a good thing.”


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