Search and Rescue helicopter back and better than ever

  • By Eric Stevick Herald Writer
  • Friday, July 29, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

EVERETT — Lighter and more versatile, the county’s SnoHawk 10 rescue helicopter is back to work after an eight-month, $1.5 million upgrade.

The black UH-1H Plus “Huey” helicopter gleamed under sunny skies Thursday while on display at Paine Field.

The improvements, paid with federal Homeland Security grant money, should extend the life of the aircraft by 20 years. It originally was built in 1970 and a new model would have cost more than $5 million, officials said.

“It looks like mechanical art to me,” said Sgt. Danny Wikstrom, who oversees Snohomish County Search and Rescue operations. “It gives us some safety margins we didn’t have in the past. It’s still a dangerous job but this is stacking the odds in (rescue crews’) favor a lot more than before.”

Bill Quistorf has made more than 1,000 missions in 11 years flying helicopters for Snohomish County. The chief pilot has tracked bad guys from above, dropped water over fires, plucked stranded climbers off mountains and monitored runaway rivers during winter floods.

He kept the county’s needs in mind when he helped develop the custom-made plans for the SnoHawk 10 upgrades. The work was done by Northwest Helicopters in Olympia.

“I’m thrilled with the end result,” he said. “They did exactly what we wanted them to do. It flies like a new aircraft.”

With the improvements, the helicopter can fly at higher altitudes and carry more weight. It also should better serve the Puget Sound region’s needs. Thursday’s rollout included helicopters and airplanes from other law enforcement departments in King and Pierce counties. The agencies have agreements to share equipment in emergencies.

Snohomish County and the Seattle Fire Department have spent the past three years training for rescues from high-rise buildings. SnoHawk 10 could play a role on such a mission.

New equipment, to be installed later this year, will make the helicopter capable of carrying 10 people at a time to safety onto an external platform.

It also will be able to drop off four-member SWAT teams in full gear, or groups of firefighters.

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Offices Air Support Unit is being noticed well beyond the Puget Sound area.

Quistorf and deputy pilot Steve Klett recently were recognized for their piloting skills as the “Aircrew of the Year” by the national Airborne Law Enforcement Association.

Wikstrom said Thursday’s celebration of the upgraded aircraft would not have been possible if it weren’t for the forward-thinking volunteers who started Snohomish County’s Search and Rescue program. Volunteers banded together in the 1990s to buy the surplus military Huey helicopter for about $5,000, he said.

“None of this would have happened without all those guys in the past,” Wikstrom said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com

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