Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018 | 2 a.m.
As recently as this decade, a search-and-rescue mission aided by the Nevada National Guard would look something like this: a clunky Vietnam War-era OH-58 Kiowa chopper, capable of holding just three passengers, would wobble its way off the ground from the North Las Vegas Airport, eventually taking off and reaching speeds of 100 to 130 mph, depending in part on the weight of its passengers.
The 1960s-era helicopter could require up to a half-hour to reach its destinations in rural Nevada counties, said pilot Jacob Pestana. Because Metro Police handle search and rescue in Clark County, the Nevada Guard is commissioned in nearby Lincoln and Nye counties, where authorities don’t have the resources to carry out the missions.
The process changed in early 2012, thanks to the guard’s acquisition of its first UH-72 Lakota — a militarized version of the Airbus H145 twin-engine helicopter with a single, four-bladed main rotor. Search-and-rescue pilots can now travel up to 50 miles in 10 minutes, Pestana said, and the new birds can accommodate up to 11 passengers.
“Most of those other airframes were timed out,” Pestana said. “This is more state of the art.”
The agency, which has acquired six such birds since 2012, demonstrated its newest aerial toys Friday with mock hoists from its hangar at the north valley airport. Hovering about 100 feet above ground, Sgt. Andrew Lynch lowered a pulley to a dirt lot as Nevada guardsmen and media members stood watching nearby. The static hoist, described by Pestana as a training method for new search-and-rescue staffers, blew up a significant amount of dust.
“It’s hard to do that in real life because it jeopardizes the patient’s safety,” he explained.
The real-world technique, known as the dynamic hoist, was developed by the Los Angeles Police Department, Pestana said. But it’s now the go-to method for the Nevada Guard when rescuing a stranded hiker. Instead of hovering above a person being rescued, the new choppers lower assistance as the chopper flies across the area where a hiker is stranded, scooping them up along the way.
The dynamic hoist is the preferred method of rescue authorities because it protects those in need from the impact of strong winds generated by the chopper.
The Nevada Guard has acquired six of the UH-72 Lakota choppers in total, valued at $50 million, spokesman Erick Studenicka said. The upgrades are part of a national allocation of 212 planes by the National Guard to agencies across the country.
Lt. Col. Mickey Kirschenbaum, spokesman for the Nevada Guard, said the agency uses the planes for only three search-and-rescue missions each year. The Nevada Guard’s seven local pilots are required to have 100 hours of training each year, and the choppers spend a significant amount of their lifespan undergoing maintenance. Each National Guard helicopter is named after a Native American tribe, Kirschenbaum said, and many are blessed in a ceremony by the tribes for good fortune.